Places I slept, 2019

Skyline

The year ending has been full. At its beginning I wondered whether it would, in retrospect, feel fast or slow. The idea is imperfect, not yet refined. The year, though, had the pace of one that will be difficult to recall as such a span. Changing places in quick succession scrambles my attempts to stitch things into patterns, and although twenty nineteen’s list is not the longest it does feature mostly shorter hops. In some ways that was the goal of moving. As for the reasons for the motion, they vary. We went to ten ultimate tournaments, despite trying to cut back. I went to Japan four times and Tara went five. We went to Taiwan independently for work and together for frisbee, a new country for both of us. We saw old friends in Shanghai and the Philippines, and drove a lot of the east coast of the US in between.

As first years in new countries go 2019 was a hectic one, for us as well as the city. We both got new jobs as the rough side of the start-up lottery came around again. One of our hopes for 2020 is a bit of peace, within and without, though as always not at the cost of freedom. Despite all the travel and turbulence we were able to share Hong Kong with a wide variety of guests, which remains a great pleasure. Hiking, exploring, and laughing with couples from New York and the Bay Area were gifts indeed. Solo travelers too, from New Years on through December, kept us learning new places and reminded us why we love this city. Last, and largest, thanks to the friends who met up in Tokyo for my 40th. The week together is represented by a couple of places slept and of course the view above, and outstripped expectations in the best way.

Despite moving half way around the world, we didn’t feel too distant for most of 2019. These moments together, wherever they happen, are a good reminder that the people we care about won’t fade from our lives. For now, let this serve as a gentle reminder that the guest room is open and flights are cheap.

The list of places slept that follows, a tradition now itself a decade old, reflects mostly our changed home base, with lots of new Asian destinations and a family & friends-focused approach to our time in the US. From the mountains of Colorado to the beaches of Boracay it’s not even all cities, though major metros feature heavily. For the coming year our goal is more new, without of course giving up on the old. Let’s see how we do.

Tai Hang, Hong Kong
Malibu, CA
Santa Monica, CA
SF, CA (five times, three houses)
Tamachi, Tokyo , Japan
Toyosu, Tokyo, Japan
Shaoguan, Guangdong
Shenzhen North, Guangdong
Longgang, Shenzhen, Guangdong
Boracay, Philippines
Novena, Singapore
Hyde Park, Chicago, Il
Ithaca, NY
Cherry Hill, NJ
Rumson, NJ
Brooklyn, NY
Fort Collins, CO
Walden, CO
Bao’an, Shenzhen, Guangdong
Waigaoqiao, Shanghai
Zhongshan Park, Shanghai
Ōsaka, Japan (twice)
Chiba, Japan
Idabashi, Japan
Hatsudai, Tokyo, Japan
Taipei, Taiwan
Taichung, Taiwan (four times)
Kyoto, Japan
Hainan, China
Manila, Philippines

As for Mr. Squish, quarantine laws will keep him in Hong Kong, at least for now. He does get out and about, to our noodle shop, the park, and on an occasional shopping trip. Mostly he’s grateful for the company, which is another invite in a post full of them.

New metrics

Electric Road

In Hong Kong on a Wednesday evening I am looking for a spray bottle. It’s our anniversary, the original one, and I’ve purchased a succulent to honor it. The succulents I’d gathered over previous years got moved from San Francisco to the East Bay but not all the way here. So I sought a new one, and then flowers, and now a spray bottle to care for them. In Tin Hau this search means walking down the street, eyes open. Eventually it means a ten Hong Kong dollar purchase from a store that sells stationary, toys, and basic household supplies. Tucked in the back near scrub brushes and a cutting board I find two sizes of bottle and opt for the larger one, in bright translucent colors.

For years now we’ve been evaluating cities, measuring them against our desires and needs. From the earliest days of this site, when smiles were my underrated metric for economic growth in boomtown Shanghai, I’ve been watching places. In Houston the bicycle infrastructure, or relative dispersal of it compared to Shanghai, was what struck me. Gas stations existed on every other corner while repairing a bicycle required a mile or more of travel. This set of facts, once realized, described adequately the built environment, the preferences of locals, the density of jobs, housing, and food, and the danger of streets for pedestrians. After all, cyclists rarely cause death. And so Houston gave me a new way to consider cities, a way to review wherever came next.

In San Francisco I spent days considering elevation and microclimates, these subtle shapes of hill and weather that have huge impacts on residential desirability across the city. The fog is a force in SF, and neighborhoods are defined by their position relative to its reach. The Sunset remains affordable partially because, come evening, it is entirely within the fog bank. The rest of its affordability, or what little remains after twenty years of appreciation, is due to the lack of transit, either highway or train.

In Hong Kong for months now I’ve struggled to clarify my thinking. I like it” and It feels good” remain mediocre rationales. The cliche, while true, that we live in a city but can quickly access the mountains or ocean is not what pulled me here. Something else explains why walking home from our noodle shop in the evening makes us so happy.

And so my quest for a spray bottle. In America, a desire like this results first in an online search. In a location where travel is expensive, dangerous, and personally demanding, it’s no surprise to see delivery flourish and online shopping rise. This rise brings with it the lack of neighborhood unity due to decreased exposure to nearby residents, the failure of local small-scale retail, and the creation of a poorly paid and utterly dehumanized delivery class to take the transit risks and bear the costs. For those reasons as well as the related sedentary health effects, it isn’t a culture that appeals to me. But how to express this preference succinctly?

In Hong Kong on a Wednesday evening I go in search of a plastic spray bottle. I walk seven blocks in eight minutes before finding one. In those seven blocks I pass three 7 Elevens, two grocery stores, one fruit stand, one vegetable stand, and countless small restaurants. I am never alone. Many of my neighbors are outside walking dogs, doing errands, chatting with friends, or coming home from work or activities. I purchase the bottle and then some sushi for dinner from a take out place. It’s a nice night. People are eating outside or in line for bubble tea near the train station. The whole city feels alive and engaged. Walking home amidst all my neighbors it strikes me: this search is a way to evaluate cities. In Hong Kong the fastest way to find something is to walk out of the house and start looking.

I remember coming home one day at the beginning of this year, not long after moving, excited with a discovery. Troye Sivan is playing in May” I said, entering the house. I saw a poster walking home.”

At the time we laughed about how learning about upcoming concerts and music releases from posters plastered on walls felt like New York in the 90’s. Now I think that for as long as we’ve lived here, we’ve learned by walking outside. That’s pretty new for me, a child of the American countryside. In rural America the fastest way to get anything, before Amazon, was to get in a car and drive 20 minutes. Walking was a good way to discover blackberries, and occasionally animals.

And so, one year in, I have a new way to evaluate cities, and a further explanation for why we love Hong Kong. What’s the fastest way to find something? It’s one more way to think about the places we inhabit, and what shapes the sense of life and community in each.

Shanghai again, together

We land at Terminal 2 some eleven years since our last shared departure. In between Shanghai has been a touch point and frequent destination, but only for myself.

Shanghai is a city of change, where the list of bars and restaurants that have closed is daunting. Most of the places we knew in two thousand seven and eight are gone. Most of the places that opened after we left have likewise disappeared. The subway has blossomed, from four incomplete lines to more than a dozen. Entire entertainment districts have grown, become popular, and then been closed by the government. Apartments have gotten more expensive but also more numerous, and there are new cool neighborhoods far beyond what was our circle of frequency.

I have been lucky, taking in these changes over the course of the intervening decade, on work trips that lasted days and weeks. Since two thousand eight I’ve been paid for probably four months of time in Shanghai, though none since 2016. There are still changes that surprise me, every time I land. Taking them all in at once is daunting, and I watch Tara wander, eyes wide with uncertainty. Is this the corner we walked to so frequently? Is this our grocery store? Which way did we go to get from one apartment to the other, in those early days?

There are moments of joy too, in this adventure. The stalls attached to Zhongshan Park station, which had always been a home of odds and ends, now feature local designers, and better food. The connecting Carrefour features the same broad array of goods but under better lighting and with a cleaner sense of organization. The old apartment building is still standing, and the convenience stores nearby are far better than the old Kwik. We eat dumplings and meat pancakes for $3, and wander the neighborhood in the morning heat. Zhongshan Park itself is pretty, and filled with dancers. Of the Faithless concert that brought us there together for the first time, well, we have memories.

On Yueyang Lu we wander beneath the green leaves of Shanghai July, happy to see how much good the intervening decade has done for the foliage. These streets have always been a special part of Shanghai, a gift of foresight that keeps out the worst of the summer heat. Along Zhaojiabang Lu and throughout much of the city, efforts to spread the feeling of the French Concession’s tree-lined roads have paid off. The trees are so big now,” we remark to each other again and again. So often, in this greenest season, it’s impossible to see tall landmarks scant blocks away, not just in our old neighborhoods but all over the city.

Tree growth more than anything is the lingering lesson of these ten years. Buildings have gone up and become accepted. Businesses have come and gone. People too. Subways have been built so far out that the borders of the city are difficult to determine. All these efforts, though, are overshadowed by how green the city has become, at least in the summer. As we leave, walking up the stairway to our plane from the Pudong tarmac, we know the trees are what we will remember from this visit in twenty nineteen.

A decade is a long time to a person, or to a couple. A decade is a long time for our careers. Eleven years ago we knew so little of what we would become, and where that would take us. And we did not appreciate enough the small saplings being placed all over Shanghai.

A decade, it turns out, is a long time for the small trees planted along Zhaojiabang. Long enough to grow tall and dense, to separate one side of the street from the other, and to quiet the noise and improve the air. Long enough to make the city a better place.

Slim hope

They promote from within,” my colleague says, and it is a statement of admiration in an afternoon of less pleasant observations. We are waiting on a factory line for it to re-start. The work we hoped to complete today, we have just learned, is to be spread over several, and we are trying to prevent this delay.

We are trying to prevent delay, so that we can leave.

We are trying to prevent delay so that when we leave we have done what we need to, seen what we need to, and can take the samples to colleagues further away. Teasing out our true needs should not take three sentences. In this concrete room we are quite clear, and have had meetings outlining this schedule weekly for the past month. The room we stand in has hundreds of workers on a half dozen products, and is quite temperate. The comfort is a gift of the season. In August the weather will not be so gracious, and we will all be a little shorter tempered. For now we try to see the good, and to have patience. Nothing life-changing will happen today, one way or another. We are all still early enough in the production schedule to go home tomorrow regardless of specifics. At dinner, everyone will laugh. And so we are discussing the factory in more general terms, the good and bad that come with any human operation. My colleague’s observation, borne out of the production manager’s youth, is true. They do promote from within. When we started this project, several years before, he was an assistant who fetched and did not speak. Now he is constantly on the phone, which is how we find him, often on another task in a different building. He is still less than twenty five, but he knows where everything is in this sprawling complex, knows who everyone is.

This knowledge deserves promotion, and thus comes as no surprise. In so many ways he has grown up in this factory. He has grown up with us and others like us, in the good weather and the bad, working on products that did well and those never re-ordered. He has adapted, as we all have, to the changing trends and product requirements, and is still here. That alone is something of a success.

Flexibility is a quality we list on both sides of the ledger for this factory, when we are waiting and listing our thoughts. On days like today though, when the weather is good and the timeline sufficiently padded, we take it in the best way. On long afternoons where not all is ready we cut each other the slack of those who know July’s stress and heat well, and do not want to build up any frustrations in advance of the challenging times.

Today, we say to each other without words, everything is alright. Whatever that means.

Places I slept, 2018

New View

The year ends with a new view. For the first time since twenty fourteen, we have a new address. For the first time since two thousand nine, we live in a new city, and for the first time since two thousand eight, a new country. That is what will summarize twenty eighteen in my memory: we moved to Hong Kong.

Looking back across things I wrote while living in San Francisco is the only way to understand how long the transition took. The earliest mention of moving on comes in two thousand twelve, written as we were moving from the Sunset district to the Richmond district in SF. My lasting memories from that year, without the aid of recollection, are of Obama’s second win, celebrated on Divisadero, and welcoming Mr. Squish, who also caused the move. It feels a very long time ago.

As I wrote at the end of last year our decisions in twenty seventeen shaped most of this year. The desire for different, long present, began for real with Tara’s flight to Spain the day after leaving Tesla. It became fact on the first of October, when we landed in Hong Kong. The gap between those two events, some ten months, will fade with time and deserve more recognition. Our ability to move was grounded in Tara’s freedom and our ability to be patient. Living for a possible future rather than a present takes an amount of self-belief that can be hard to sustain, and both of us struggled with it at times in the spring. Those difficult moments of self-doubt and fear are what will be lost in the grand story of our time in San Francisco and Hong Kong. The weekends we spent making plans A through E to have enough options to fall back on are rarely the highlights of our adventures, nor are they filled with laughter. Those plans, though, were what sustained us and stopped us from staying the course in San Francisco. Moving abroad, as adults, without sacrificing careers or facing too much financial uncertainty, is a challenging game of logistics, desire, and luck. Writing this from our Hong Kong apartment is proof we managed all three.

Despite that move, or more accurately because of it, my list below of places slept is smaller than it has been in years, and focused tightly on neighborhood hunting in Hong Kong, work in the Shenzhen Dongguan Guangzhou Zhuhai area, and family in the US. In many ways this list, started to aid my memory, has succeeded in defining, quickly, the shape of life. Scanning the previous entries I can spot friends’ moves and the slow shift of job changes. I can’t wait to see what 2019 brings, with a new home base and some familiar stops already planned.

As always, thanks for reading. Twenty eighteen feels like a fresh start, both in writing and in learning. I’ve been sending physical mail again, trying to get back up to my five pieces per month target of the early part of this decade. If you haven’t gotten any, send me your address and you will.

Here it is then, the list. Previous years can be found here, back to 2009 when this project began.

Portland, OR
Mt. Shasta, CA
San Francisco, CA
Henderson, NV
Newport, CA
Malibu, CA
Phoenix, AZ
Bao’an, Shenzhen, China
Zhuhai, China
Kowloon, Hong Kong
North Point, Hong Kong
Austin, TX
Causeway Bay, Hong Kong
San Po Kong, Hong Kong
Sai Ying Pun, Hong Kong
Wan Chai, Hong Kong
Bellingham, WA
Aurora, IL
Ft Collins, CO
Elko, NV
Rio Linda, CA
TST East, Hong Kong
Cherry Hill, NJ
Rumson, NJ
Brooklyn, NY
Tai Hang, Hong Kong
Doumen, Zhuhai, China

And as for Mr. Squish? He made it farther than any street cat from the East Bay ever expects to go, and we’re so grateful for his company. As I write this he’s asleep in his chair in the living room, finally relaxed in this new country.

Portland, OR
Mt. Shasta, CA
San Francisco, CA
Tai Hang, Hong Kong

Eyes open heart wide

Moving means everything is new and of unknown interest. As a result I spend weeks wandering with my eyes and ears open. Exploring, in the tame urban sense of it. I look out of doors, in shops, up stairs, and around corners. More than a month in, Hong Kong is as full as I’d hoped and I have no sense of the limits. Learning a new place is best done by wandering without earbuds, and without goals. Tonight, sitting on the top level of the tram heading home at golden hour, every angle looked good. Every direction provided some new detail to absorb. Bamboo scaffolding. Laundry hanging out of windows. Purple neon in the top floor of busses. Commuters watching their phones. Commuters crossing the street. People in upper story windows just getting home, and people in shops picking up things for the weekend.  All these parts of the city convey the sense of motion and depth that I love so much. There are people everywhere.

The appeal of density is a difficult thing to explain. I’ve tried for years, thinking about why fleeing the dark of rural China for Shanghai’s lights feels better than anything. Last week, on a bus back from Zhuhai to Hong Kong, I felt that pull again, that desire to be where the lights and people are. And here, on Hong Kong Island, walking home from the tram, I have made it back once again. I feel as comfortable as I can, considering I can’t yet speak Cantonese.

My wanderings are one way to enjoy the density of this city, to appreciate the variety of life, of housing, of jobs being done. Taking new routes to familiar places is a way to immerse myself in this city, to absorb as much as I can of my new home. Because eventually, as with all things, I’ll be busier, and have less time for extra steps. I’ll be focused on other things, and not remember the city I chose to live in the way I thought of it before moving. I won’t remember the Hong Kong of the past few years, where I took Sundays off after long Dongguan weeks. I might not remember the Novotel breakfasts of my business trips. Instead this city will join San Francisco, Houston, Shanghai, Tokyo, New York, Boston, and all the places I’ve lived in my memories. It will be full of friendships and struggles, the ongoing geography of real life.

Today, though, on the tram home, Hong Kong was still firmly in the realm of places I have always wanted to spend more time. And by keeping my eyes open and my mind empty, I’m trying to keep it there for as long as life will let me.

Fishing for peace

Harbor view

On the edge of a block of concrete built to support a highway, they fish. It’s Sunday, and the sun is going down on the weekend, out to our left behind the island. These concrete chunks would already be in shadow were they not perpetually so because of the highway above. In Hong Kong some shade is a good thing, and these are regular fishing spots. The fishermen, for they are all men, seem to know who sits where without any spoken interaction, which points to a long established tradition. People have been fishing these blocks on the shore of Quarry Bay for years, probably since before there were concrete blocks to fish from.

The real joy from this spot isn’t the fishing, though. It’s the water, and the view across to Kowloon, Lion Rock, and Kwun Tong. That far shore is still lit, a beautiful shimmer of golden hour glory and the bay’s moving reflection that emphasize how much Hong Kong is a city of the ocean and the mountains. And so there are photographers here too, both casual and more serious, trying to capture this light. In so many ways the city, the dense urban towers that are home to eight million people, appears the smallest part of the view. Perhaps this is why so many people are able to live so tightly; the water and mountains are often in sight and rarely out of reach.

The story of density is told frequently as a sacrifice, but rarely as a comfort. Here, watching the fishermen sit on their blocks of concrete, rods out and down and lines into the bay, less than a dozen feet from each other and mostly silent, is a reminder that company without conversation can bring peace. In many ways the stories of dense urban areas are not of individual apartments but of shared spaces. Whether Central Park in New York or along the rivers of Paris and Rome, the spaces we share are what builds the fabric of the city. In these spaces we see each other, and are not alone.

In Hong Kong as Sunday ends I am so happy to walk the shoreline and watch all those out, like me, to find some peace. Fishing, jogging, taking photos, or just wandering, we’re all here together, part of this island and this city.

Ease of operation

Looking out

We land in Hong Kong with nine checked bags, which is strangely the most efficient method of transporting the sum of our San Francisco years. Waiting for them I remember other moves, and the challenges of each. Where has the boy gone who left Tokyo with two suitcases, who did not know how to get a taxi or any RMB on landing in Shanghai? What of the boy who left Shanghai with those same two suitcases and two shipped boxes, put on 3 month China Post slow boats destined for Houston? And most of all, what does this mean for the man who has disembarked at this same gate a dozen times over the last two years, carrying a single duffel?

They are all here, these previous selves, well aware of the way we pack when trying to take everything we own on short notice. They are here, in an airport we know so well, watching me maneuver this very full cart down the slight ramp to the taxi stand. They are voices in my head asking how these bags will ever go in a small Hong Kong taxi trunk.

Moving is a test. We test our ability to let go in a way that is painful and educational. We have said goodbye to our friends, to our neighborhood, to our house, to our routines, and to our stuff. Bicycles have been moved, sold, and given away. Art, furniture, kitchen gear and more has been handed off to people who will be able to enjoy them without transporting them more than a few miles. Soon we will part with the car, the bed, and finally the apartment that we’ve loved for the past four years. Moving is an experience filled with sadness, and with uncertainty. By letting go of all these things we are able to make space for new ones, whether that means new apartments or new shoes. And by letting go of our country and our city, at least for now, we are able to discover.

In Hong Kong in early October the weather is beautiful. At seven am, as we struggle with the overloaded carts, it’s a balmy twenty eight C, the humidity not too high. Wearing pants still from the airplane we are already slightly sweaty but able to manage. And we are able to discover how our new home operates.

The fourth vehicle in the taxi queue is a van, and the driver enthusiastically helps us cram all our bags in, guitar and skateboard included. The process, which I’d been dreading since the night before, takes five minutes and then we’re on the road, both in the same car, on our way to the hotel. Having used two separate Lyft rides to get to SFO sharing the taxi is a treat. En route we realize, were we going the other way, Hong Kong to SFO, we could have checked all these bags at Central and ridden the train out to HKG with only our carry ons. From moment one Hong Kong impresses with functionality. All nine checked bags go on a cart at the hotel and are whisked away to a storage room. Moving, even with more stuff than we could carry, isn’t that bad. Two hours after landing we go for a swim in a pool overlooking the harbor, and begin to relax.

As an asthmatic one of the other challenges of moving is procuring medicine. In the US and in Japan inhalers have required a complicated dance of doctors and pharmacies. In China for so long they were available over the counter, only becoming prescription in two thousand seven. So it is with some slight trepidation that I set out to find one on our second day in Hong Kong.

I purchase one after five minutes of looking for a pharmacy in Mongkok, for $93 HKD, or $12 USD. In SF they have cost me $25 for the past two years, with good insurance. No one is quite sure how much extra the insurance company has to pay, on top of my $25. For the second time in two days I’m reminded of why we leave, why we move and challenge ourselves. Without those painful goodbyes, without the long days of packing and worrying, we would never have learned how easy moving can be, and how cheap medication can come.

These examples are mundane, and yet they’re a reminder that what seems daunting isn’t always so, and that taking risks is one way of discovering new joy.

Here then is to the next few months, which will be full of new neighborhoods and first time discoveries. They come at a high cost, one we’ve paid over years, and will bring benefits we have not yet learned to expect.

Get moving

There’s a common thread of conversation among thirty-somethings in San Francisco. It’s a string that connects housing costs, job opportunities, weather, family, and the wider world. Once that thread is found, all conversations head the same direction, to a longer-term plan.

These plans, for all but the most wealthy or locally born, do not involve living in San Francisco.

San Francisco, this city of wealth, tolerance, and beauty, will lose so many of us. This loss is not necessarily to the city’s detriment. It is, however, true, reflected in the recently published statistic on declining number of families with kids within city limits. The cost of housing is the central issue, a massive wealth transfer from those who do not own property to those who were here earlier, and so do. In another way the recurring conversations are hilarious in a sad way: these are conversations between people who have lucked in to hundreds of thousands of dollars but can not secure a place to live.

San Francisco is best thought of as a fountain for humans, in the way New York has been for so long. People come to it on the bottom, fresh out of school, looking for a chance and a career. They rise up and then leave, scattering out like droplets to Portland, Seattle, Salt Lake, Denver, Austin, Boise, and countless smaller or more distant locations. In so many ways the pump of this California fountain is transforming the entire west coast of the United States. The constant outbound migration of those with relative money is changing politics, policies, and, of course, home values. The earnings of California go a long way in Boise, even if the new salary is on a local scale.

None of this is news, none of this is fresh reporting. This is just a summary of every conversation between thirty year olds in San Francisco in the year 2018, where thousands sleep outside and dozens of millionaires are made every year.

And so, of course, the topic of our own plan comes up. Has come up. Has come up for years. Are we buying, are we leaving, where are we going? Nearer to family? Nearer to the mountains, or the forests, or another job? What are we looking for, and what escape route have we hatched in our one bedroom in the Mission, with poop and yelling outside and a furry cat inside?

As the title says, the only way to change is to pick up and start. So we pack, and sell, give away and store the accoutrement of this past decade in the United States. Eight bicycles need to be disposed of, plus sleeping bags, chairs, a climbing pad, and dozens of old ultimate jerseys. Eventually we are down to things like shelves, tables, chairs, the sofa, a rug, and the bed. These large physical elements were bought for this space, and will not go onward with us. They are, mostly, too big to move alone, and without enough clear value to post on craigslist. The obvious solution is to host, one last time, a gathering of humans in this space, to say goodbye to it, to them, and to hope they take some of our objects with them when they leave.

So, on a Saturday in September of twenty eighteen we vacuum and put away the few things we will ship, books, computers, and clothes. And then we throw open the doors and windows and turn up the music. The sun and the breeze pour in as we welcome those who have welcomed us here. As the apartment fills, we relax. So much of the work done, so many of the difficult questions from those frequent conversations have been answered. We no longer have to talk about what we might do, what plan we aspire to, what we are saving for. Instead we can hug our friends and pass on our belongings, certain of the distance between them and our next home.

It is as good a way as any to say goodbye.

Heat rising

A friend of ours is fond of observing patterns in the movements of people. One of his favorite targets is migrations around the United States. For the most part domestic migration in the US is from cold places to warmer places, specifically from the north east and upper midwest to the south west and south east. These are not exactly new trends, nor is he the first to note them, but repetition does influence minds.

The trend I watch most closely, living inside of it as we do, is that of California as wealth pump, bringing in people, increasing their net worth, and then seeing them depart for cheaper housing, smaller towns, lower property taxes, and proximity to family. Unlike the north east, most people leaving California are not seeking better weather. As with my friend and his observations, California’s trend has been going on long before I became aware of it. We discuss them together, on occasion, because they have a similar side effect: this migration is changing the cost and tenor of the destinations. California does not just export wealth to Denver, it exports beliefs. New York and Michigan do likewise to South Carolina and Arizona. In an era where the self-sorting of Americans by political beliefs has been well explored, this is a counter tale of remixing.

And so, arriving in Austin for a wedding, I am glad to find the cranes sprouting over downtown. I am excited to see balconies on the apartment towers going up, and a dense neighborhood of bars at their feet. Bands play and cars, while present, are forced to stop for crowds of pedestrians, cycle taxis, and small electric vehicles. Near by a new hotel rises with more music in its lobby and a stylish walkway across the street to a section of creek. We wander late into the night and are never alone. So much of the city is outside and celebrating at the end of the school year, before summer truly begins. As the heat dies around nine pm, so too does the city come alive. It’s a rare sensation for those of us accustomed to San Francisco’s five pm fog and evening hoodies.

Austin still sprawls, and we spend much of our weekend in neighborhoods that are actually towns, places with names like Driftwood, Pflugerville, and Dripping. These places are accessible only by car and feature large houses and good schools. In many ways, Texas is still Texas.

Yet we are there for the wedding of someone born in Colorado, and visit friends who have moved from San Francisco and work in tech, on transit, and with future startup founders. These are people who want to bike to work or who work from home, and who care about density, sustainability, and public schools. The trends, at least this weekend, feel real. Walking past construction sites for future residential towers and seeing others just opened I am glad to see Austin rising in the heat in support.

Construction crews

Cranes and city

Out the window of my tiny Hong Kong hotel the scaffolding rises. In a wonderful match, my room is at exactly the height of the top-most floor of the buildings being built in front of this Hotel Ibis in North Point. The last time I was here, in December, the construction did not reach my room, topping out several floors below. Now I have a front row seat to the working day of a Hong Kong construction crew. They are busy today, a Saturday, having started at seven am. The buildings, a set of apartment towers along the bay, are already twenty plus stories tall, cased in the green netting so common to construction sites here. Like most their scaffolding is all bamboo, the tops of it poking out of the netting like a strange headless forest.

In the United States, in San Francisco, this would be amazing. Fifty to a hundred people that I can see, three cranes, and everything surrounded by bamboo. Here, like most of Asia, it’s just how buildings go up. Flexible, light, and resilient, the bamboo moves with the wind, though not enough to notice without tedious observation. Beyond the construction site from me lies the harbor, full of sailboats and tugboats moving past. Across the water lies the old airport, now a cruise ship terminal, and a large collection of working ships, dredgers, short haulers, and barges. Beyond that high rises stretch to the mountains. The sky is blue, though brown on the horizon just over the mountains. For Hong Kong it is a cold eighteen degrees C.

These apartments are the second phase of a project, and their identical siblings sit completed just up the road. They will block most of the wonderful views of this incredibly reasonably priced hotel, which is sad but to be expected. Nothing lasts forever, especially not budget hotel rooms in Hong Kong with full harbor views. Better to enjoy, and move on, like this construction crew. I wonder where they are from, how far they had to travel to be here at seven am on a Saturday in early March. Are they locals, or from the mainland? From a hundred yards away at twenty three storeys up they look local, and stay busy. There are few smoke breaks, few idle minutes. That isn’t to say they’re always moving, like all construction crews they wait for materials, for the crane, and have meetings to discuss the next stage at various points through out the day. Unlike Japan they wear no uniforms, instead mostly t-shirts, jeans, and hard hats. It’s a pleasant look, an almost American look. If Americans stood twenty three stories up on bamboo. If Americans built a half dozen apartment blocks at a time, in a city already full of them.

In some ways Hong Kong represents so much of my struggle with the United States, and I can’t help but see the echoes of San Francisco in the bay and mountains. That overlapping view defines much of my thinking, and the frequent bounces from one to the other reinforce the symmetry while highlighting the differences. I am here again for the weekend, sick at the end of a week spent in country, Shenzhen Dongguan Zhuhai and back in a loop of vans and trains and ferries that has given my throat little time to heal. These two days, then, are a break, a peaceful moment with a view. Breaks like this at the end of trips, as I’ve written before, are something I’ve learned, a way to come home relaxed instead of exhausted. A way to return, happy, to San Francisco and my cat.

Been there twenty years

Do you remember Saturday Coffee,” our conversation begins. We do, the small cafe on Yongjia Lu that served coffee and warm sandwiches, two blocks from our last apartment in Shanghai. It was open just over a year and then disappeared. A couple’s dream of entrepreneurship hindered by the rising rents and limited clientele. Most of the time we had the place to ourselves, could get coffee and two sandwiches without any wait, which was part of the appeal. Mostly though we liked the owners, and their sandwiches. We liked living two blocks from a cafe in Shanghai.

These are the brief memories of an urban area. In San Francisco we reminisce about Hotei, our favorite Sunset ramen spot in two thousand ten, since closed. For two years we would walk the ten blocks through the early evening fog to have ramen, to be welcomed by the staff accustomed to our routine, and to enjoy the peace of Sunday before the week began. When it closed, in two thousand fourteen, Hotei joined Saturday coffee in our memories, places to be discussed nostalgically.

So much of living is about watching things end, about remembering restaurants no longer open, friends who have moved away. Rare then are the places that have endured, the corner pub, the tiny burger joint. Rare is the other side of these conversations, the acknowledgement of survival, more commonly said with reverence.

It’s been there twenty years,” he says about the corner store. The owners are friendly, part of the neighborhood. They provide booze to the homeless and coffee to the construction crews, milk to the forgetful and egg sandwiches to the hungover. As neighborhood staples go they’re a highlight in an area that has for so long been neglected by the city. Building this reputation has taken years of opening early and closing late, of hosing off the street outside, of brushing up the trash and adapting the stock to suite the neighbors. Recently the coffee has improved, a nod to the younger generation moving in. They still play KQED and know the baseball scores.

Like Ebisu, Jenny’s Burgers, and the Little Shamrock in the inner sunset, the places that have survived are special too, even though discussing them usually involves commenting on the current state of the city rather than remembering the idealized version of our memories. Saturday Coffee, Boona 2, and a dozen other of my favorite places in Shanghai have shut in the decade since I moved away. More impressive, then, are the places that endure, the woman still cooking noodles on Wuxing Lu, Bar Constellation and People’s Seven, because they have become part of the tapestry of Shanghai by surviving.

The trick to discovering cities is to remember that they are constantly changing, that of course the things we love will disappear. Restaurants shut and neighborhoods turn over not because things are getting worse but because nothing lasts forever. We should celebrate having had those sandwiches, having lived near that bar, and tell tall tales about our luck.

And we should continue to explore, to grow and to discover. Living in a city is a gift. It is lucky to be somewhere that is alive, growing and evolving, to be somewhere that pushes us to do the same.

Places I slept, 2017

The year ending feels very long, in ways both big and small. For the first time since two thousand nine both of us were able to take time off this year, to figure out what to do next, where to live, and what to aim for. These processes aren’t finished yet and will shape much of twenty eighteen and beyond. The last time we had such freedom, in the spring of two thousand nine, we interviewed cities on the west coast of the US, certain that we wanted to be close to the Pacific. We still do, though much else has changed. The feeling of freedom is rare and wonderful, and will dominate all memories of twenty seventeen.

Eight years seems like a full phase, and the present moment somewhat of a shared opportunity. Many of our friends are likewise contemplating what’s next in their lives. Some are moving, are looking to move, or have just done so. Others are taking professional risks or debating them. For reasons both mundane and political, twenty seventeen felt like a year of shifts, of small detachments and new freedom. Unlike twenty sixteen, which ended in despair, there is hope to be found, if we look hard, if we are willing to work and to dream. We are.

It’s always good to remember the past years gifts as well as it’s themes. Looking back mostly I remember friendship and the distances traveled in service of. We saw Seth in Bangkok in February and in Seattle in December. We met Jeff in Los Angeles in January, New York in November, and Seattle in December. Mitch joined us in LA in January and Arizona in March. Lucas and Kristin were hosts in Portland and guests in San Francisco. Bobert likewise, in visits on both US coasts. Mel, Dray, Tori, and so many others swung through San Francisco.

That list is neither comprehensive nor designed as such. Rather it’s a reminder, for myself: the friendships we keep travel well, and we should never fear for their endurance. They are what supports us in hard times and what we build on in good. In the tough years we work together to survive, all investing in smaller circles when larger ones feel fruitless.

Yet in twenty seventeen professional circles felt more rewarding than ever as well. We met inspirational people and were able to support others for what seemed like the first time, though it was not. Understanding, at last, the value of a professional network feels both strangely liberating and humbling. Once again I grow up slowly.

Lastly, to those reading, thanks for your time. Writing hasn’t been as easy the last two years, but it is still the most rewarding activity, a way to feel better at the end than at the beginning.

With that, here is my list of places slept, the longest ever without question due to sixteen different camp sites on the Grand Canyon over sixteen days this past July and August. That trip was a gift, and turning thirty eight en route felt lucky. On other fronts I saw new parts of southern China, a lot more of Hong Kong, and more of the US west coast than in most years. As always, travel is a gift, and I’m more comfortable with this rate now.

San Francisco, CA Humen, Dongguan, China Baiyun, Guangzhou, China Macau Futian, Shenzhen, China Santa Monica, CA Lumphini, Bangkok, Thailand Bang Rak, Bangkok, Thailand Along the 5, CA Mesa, AZ Malibu, CA Portland, OR Sha tin, Hong Kong Bao’an, Shenzhen, China Shaoguan, China Kowloon, Hong Kong Bodega Bay, CA Ft Collins, CO Walden, CO Flagstaff, AZ 16 different campsites along the Grand Canyon, AZ Davis, CA Gilroy, CA Rio Linda, CA Zhuhai, China Wan Chai, Hong Kong Cherry Hill, NJ Brooklyn, NY North Point, Hong Kong Ashland, OR Seattle, WA Astoria, OR

My count of places swam reached thirteen in 2017, but I will not publish them this year. Instead I will begin a new list, that of cities biked. This list comes thanks to the worldwide expansion of bike share and my growing certainty that cars are not meant for urban areas. I hope for more in twenty eighteen.

San Francisco, CA Shenzhen, China Fort Collins, CO Seattle, WA Portland, OR

As for Mr. Squish, he too has been traveling. I write this from Portland, where he is lying below the coffee table in the sun in our friend’s house, completely relaxed after a week on the road. A useful skill, for a cat. His list for 2017 is below.

San Francisco, CA Fort Collins, CO Ashland, OR Portland, OR Seattle, WA Astoria, OR

On the river

Deer Creek

For three weeks we drift down the Colorado. The Grand Canyon is so large as to take hours to approach by car. Finding the flat space at Lees Ferry where we launch our boats feels very random, and I wonder how the first explorers managed. So many miles of walking or riding to reach this place, and so hidden from view. How many ridges had they crested looking for a way to the river before discovering this one?

Our days are nothing like theirs must have been. Our route is well planned and food precisely proportioned. We cook in crews and camp at spots long favored by the elders of our group. We stop for hikes to waterfalls that pour into the canyon, and stand in them, letting the cleaner, warmer water wash and refresh. It is a hundred and ten degrees in Arizona in August, and we are often in the sun.

Mostly a passenger, I spend some part of every day with my feet up and my hat over my eyes, watching a narrow sliver of river and sky without a care. It is peaceful, to be rowed, though less so to row, and several of our party eat ravenously every day. I manage to read three books, mostly in the quiet hours after camp is made, on nights when I am not responsible for the cooking. It’s a beautiful scene, to look up from one’s book and see the canyon walls rise high into the distance, or to see the river wind away into the sunset. For three weeks any conversation can be interrupted by wow, look at that,” and everyone will. Condors, mountain sheep, hawks, herons, and frogs cause these exclamations, as do waterfalls, landslide evidence, and the cliffs themselves as we wind through one type of rock into another of a far earlier era.

So often the canyon reveals beauty in hidden spots. These side hikes, hidden caverns, or waterfalls are a surprise, the beauty of place that is invisible from without. The grandeur, the huge vistas and towering walls that sprawl across the horizon is overwhelming and an excellent reminder of real scale. These giant vistas have been photographed though, and can be seen in some sense from the rim, from above. The small canyons, etched by water in oddly smooth curves, with pools in between small waterfalls, that can be swam in or sat beneath, are impossible to discover any other way. They can only be found from the river.

And so for three weeks these small discoveries keep us climbing, hiking, and sweating, up hills and over cliffs, looking for another beautiful spot that takes work to find.

Commuting lives

Vanmoof

Years ago I wrote about my commute, on electric scooter through the neighborhoods of Shanghai.

Once again I have a similar commute, by bicycle in downtown San Francisco. It is hard to overstate what an accomplishment this is in the United States in twenty seventeen.

As Mobike overtakes the Asian cities I love, San Francisco is still caught in the death throws of the private automobile. It’s common to hear conversations about autonomous vehicles, electric bicycles, or other means of transportation, and yet so much travel, so much of commuting life relies on the private car, even if employed via an app or treated as a shared resource.

For the past few years I’ve ridden Bart & biked to work, a lengthy combination made friendly by a wonderful bike shop in Fruitvale that housed my bike on weekday evenings. Now though I am finally free, able to bike or walk, Bart or bus as I feel the need. No option takes more than twenty minutes, door to door. It’s a glorious release, a freedom I haven’t felt since Shanghai, since those scooter rides through neighborhoods I still know well and still think of often.

And so my thought these last few weeks, made happy by this gift of geography: How much of our life is really our commute?”

Not where we work, but how we get there. Not who we work with, but who we travel along side. Not how much we are paid, but how much we pay to arrive at the office.

How much of our lives are we spending in transit, and how does it leave us?

This is the question that resonates as I pedal home down Howard Street, a decade after slipping quietly down Yongjia Lu on my electric scooter.

Free.

Across the city

On Sundays in San Francisco we bike to the beach. In earlier years it was a shorter ride, from the Sunset or Richmond. Now though we are distant enough from the ocean’s effects that the weather is unpredictable. I take long sleeves and a hat, and want both. Seven short miles, several elevation changes, and the variances of fog make for a strange ride.

At Baker Beach the fog swirls around the Golden Gate, hiding both it and Marin from view. We play at the water’s edge and enjoy the peace of the Pacific.

On the way home I pedal up through the Richmond to a coffee shop I used to frequent with the cat. The owner is happy to see me and I her, and we chat for a while while she closes up shop for the day. Leaving her I ride past our old house and see the new residents unpacking their car from a weekend away. I remember those days, two cars and so much time on the road.

Into Golden Gate Park and the scene changes, families on rollerblades and bicycles dominate the closed road. It’s a peaceful place, the car-free park on a Sunday, somewhere to exercise and wander without fear. Every time I am here I wonder what the entire city would be like without automobiles.

Down to the Panhandle I find at last the remenants of Bay to Breakers, the city-wide run turned street party. Hundreds of people in costumes fill the small stretch of park that reaches east into the city. They are drunk and celebrating, mostly oblivious to the bikers sliding past. I remember partying here, playing games with friends, cartwheels and rope climbing. Years ago now.

Out of the park and down into lower Haight I slide, finding more parents visiting their children, more folk walking their dogs. It’s a nice section of the city, Divisadero to Duboce Triangle, and I do not pedal hard, content to roll downhill and listen to snatches of conversations, slivers of people’s afternoons.

Out on to Market, into the heat of the eastern part of the city, and I am almost home. So many more cars, so much more traffic. Families now walk with coffee still, late in the day. Homeless people start to appear, wandering or pushing carts.

Down the side route by the 101 entrance I duck, and suddenly, after so long and so many different scenes, I am back in my own, on Valencia, past Zeitgeist, into the urban heat of the city. It’s comforting and less peaceful, an urban mishmash of Lyft drivers and those looking for fancy dinner spots.

Me? I slide through to my garage, to my windows that let in breeze on two sides of the house and my cat who naps in the sunbeams.

A city is best discovered on bike, and home again at last I think of all the different neighborhoods, all the different lives we’ve slipped through, me and my new Van Moof, on our trip to the ocean and back, taking in memories of this city that will hold us over till the next weekend.

Sails raised

Bay

From the water all the stories seem true. San Francisco’s towers are a blend of new and old, and the bridges that link it to the surrounding hills are huge feats of engineering with graceful lines. On this Sunday the light and waves are perfect, neither dull nor overwhelming. We move at a good clip, up from the ballpark and around Treasure Island. On the north side, past Angel Island, there is a race on, a set of boats loosely grouped with similar sails raised. One of our companions, a racer himself, describes their paths and the rules as they tack around and farther from our view.

This short jaunt with new friends is educational. I learn about the wind’s two seasons, stronger summer and calmer winter. Our April Sunday feels like summer, with gusts pushing us south as soon as we pass the ballpark’s shelter. Our biggest shock comes in the missing Cape Horn, no longer tied alongside it’s companion the Cape Hudson. After ten years, the departure is a shock to seasoned sailors and city dwellers alike. Luckily we live in the age of curiosity, and it is quickly located via search, under power heading south down near Monterey. Why it is on the move remains a mystery that fuels much of our next half hour’s conversation.

Getting out on the water is one of the treasures of life here. With a bay large enough for container ships, ferries, cruise liners, and sailboats, it’s part of life in a different way than the waters near Shanghai, New York, or Tokyo. After eight years, I’m glad to be on a sailboat, grinding and tailing in turn as we make our way out and back. It’s a lucky coincidence, an invite we never expected, and we are happy to have said yes.

Sometime in the past few years yes became a goal. At least once a day, to something unplanned on waking. With a smile if at all possible, say yes once a day. It’s a small habit, a trick to play on my own nature to keep adventuring, to keep moving in new orbits and avoid the drag of laziness. Often I follow Tara, which counts. Often we follow someone entirely new, or old friends we did not plan to meet. In this way we end up at dance recitals and at track workouts, and learn in both cases.

Sometimes we end up out on the bay on a Sunday in April, watching the water and the land in equal measure, talking of ships and sails until we return to the dock and remember our knots.

Healing time

Bangkok skyline

Eight months ago we watched this same view with more pain, our skin worn away by a road in Laos so that the pool stung slightly.

Now we sit and watch the buildings almost astonished to be back. Work travel like this is always unexpected, and neither of us planned to return to Bangkok so soon after the last strange week here, shuttling between hospital and hotel.

We were too injured then to explore very far in any direction. A half dozen blocks at most, a couple of train stations, a single mall. Now, back to a more regular health, we wander a dozen miles a day around the city, becoming both more comfortable here and less tied to those injuries.

It is a strange reunion, a vacation given to us out of odd circumstance. A colleague unable to travel due to the new US government for Tara and the freedom of minimal employment for me has given us three days in the city before her work begins to relax and revisit old views.

In the interim months Bangkok has changed as much as our skin. The building across the street from this hotel is gleaming white and the pool on floor five filled. On our last visit it was wrapped in scaffolding and construction elevators, and filled with work men welding at odd hours. The interior of the upper floors does not yet look finished, but the lower ten seem occupied. For our part we can both do pushups, a testament to the surgeons at Bumrungrad that added titanium to Tara’s wrist and to her intervening months of physical therapy and dedication.

As a reminder of physical progress the week in Thai sunshine is welcome. As a mental break from the past before we begin building the future, it’s a luxury.

Sometimes we are lucky indeed.

Places I slept, 2016

Manhattan, NY

Montreal, Canada

San Francisco, CA

Santa Monica, CA

Malibu, CA

Shanghai, China

Hangzhou Wan, China

Itabashi, Tokyo

Las Vegas, NV

Ft Collins, CO

Davis, CA

Sheung Wan, Hong Kong

Ashland, OR

Bangkok, Thailand

Luang Prabang, Laos

Nong Khiaw, Laos

Guerneville, CA

Chicago, IL

Indianapolis, IN

Brooklyn, NY

Santa Cruz, CA

Union Pier, MI

Phoenix, AZ

Waimanalo, HI

Honolulu, HI

San Diego, CA

Downtown Singapore

Raja Ampat, Indonesia

Katong, Singapore

Cherry Hill, NJ

This list for 2016 reflects a year that went by quickly and in distinct sections. I again reached 30 distinct zip codes in 365 days, not my record but something of a regular milestone, the fourth straight year I have slept at least one new zip code every fortnight. Some of these patterns and beds have become familiar from past years and repetition: the same hotels in Shanghai, the houses of friends in Malibu and New York. Many were firsts, Hyde Park in Chicago, Singapore, Laos, Indonesia, and an unplanned ten days in Bangkok.

As usual the thirty zip codes do not represent the fullness of the travel. I saw Shanghai four times, Itabashi three, Brooklyn and Malibu twice. In many ways 2016 matched 2015 and 2013, two trips abroad for fun and several more for work in addition to the regular travel of the ultimate frisbee season and a couple of weddings. For better or worse we were often on the road, and Mr. Squish relied on the generosity of friends. To those who cared for him, in our home or theirs, our gratitude is great.

Mr. Squish made one trip, to Colorado in the spring. He’s become more of a home body as our adventures and jobs take us further afield. Improving his list is a goal for 2017.

As for the questions of sustainability posed by 2015’s pace, they were not answered in 2016. At last though the goals are clear, and 2017 should bring change to our habits and the frequency with which we move. I hope the changes bring us joy.

Previous years’ lists can be found below, an annual habit imported from my old tumblr which I moved to this site in 2016.

2015

2014

2013

2012

2011

2010

2009

Barely attached

Raja Ampat

Sitting on a deck in Raja Ampat, the water fading to black in front and beneath me, I perform a strange ritual. Like the four other people on this deck or at the tables behind me, I am waving my arm slowly overhead, searching for a signal.

In this corner of the world we are barely connected. The idea of a global network is alive, just out of reach. Once or twice a day TELSEL E springs to life and delivers the occasional email. More frequently it delivers only subject lines, leaving us curious as to the writer’s intent. Instagram displays pictures from several days ago with enthusiasm.

On some evenings between 6 and 11 pm, when the generator is running, there is satellite wifi. It is a finicky thing, ephemeral and varied. Weather affects it, I hear, or the breeze. In my own observations it works hesitantly or not at all. Waiting for these brief slivers networking is a tedious and laughable exercise that brings mosquito bites as often as data. Luckily all present are taking malaria pills.

The Internet, when found this way, in slivers of roaming or satellite data, feels far more fragile than the conduit of knowledge we’ve grown used to in the US. This is life not on the edge” but on the remote coasts of the world. Overhead here Orion is upside down and the moon sets early, a tiny sliver. Out in the bay between islands the occasional skiff motors, drawing a straight line between points, unconcerned about traffic.

The next morning we circumnavigate our private island with ease in a kayak, enjoying these flat seas. Here at the equator the world is beautiful and time goes slowly, just like the networks. We hear of the owner’s plans for a second resort, for more solar panels to supplement the generator’s few hours. He bemoans the lack of infrastructure, how machine parts have to come from Jakarta. The capital city is a five hour flight, a two hour ferry, and a thirty minute speed boat ride away. Nothing arrives next day. This is no great distress when fish can be caught and eggs gathered on island, but would concern everyone if water ran low.

To my right the next evening, on a raised wooden walkway connecting the eating deck and the shore, the resort owner sits, arms around his knees and hands on his phone. Like us he is searching for the signal, happily alive on this island but barely connected to the wider world.

Moods of light

In December San Francisco feels like fall. The wind whips a little bit, leaves drift in small numbers, and the light fades too early for after-work gatherings in the park. In the north east October is my favorite month, brisk and full of the ending of things. Years since moving here I’ve come to understand December’s similar role in California.

More than wind or chilly weather the difference of the seasons can be felt in the light. San Francisco and the bay are often held up as places with great light, and these are true tales. Being on the edge of the continent, with only the Pacific beyond, grants spectacular sunsets. Being a place of fog gives the bay constant rainbows and lends the air a depth rare in human cities with air this clean. And being built on hills and peninsulas gives the area plenty of views, plenty of landmarks to watch and watch from. On our roof on wet evenings the cat and I sometimes watch all these elements combine, the Sutro tower fading into the oncoming fog while pink sunset lights the clouds above and the towers of the financial district reflect the colors back like mirrors. San Francisco is a beautiful city, and the bay an amazing gift.

In December, just returned home from Singapore and Indonesia, the fall weather is exciting. Leaves outside my office have changed colors and litter the walkway in golds and bronzed oranges. The constant drip of rain is a comfort, and the cold refreshes our bodies while never dipping below freezing or truly preventing activity. Yes, December is a lot like October in New York, and I am glad to feel it return, especially after the weeks of constant sweat near the equator.

Haneda mornings

Haneda at sunrise

In some ways, for this boy, everything starts in Tokyo.

Ever since he turned 18 here, on his first visit, the city has been a constant reference, and a sometimes home. The urban sprawl of the greater metro area has been a window onto so much of his life.

Today Tokyo frames the hours between four and nine am. For these five hours he wanders the new international terminal of Haneda without urgency. The rest of this trip, to Shanghai, Hong Kong, Ningbo, and back, will be a whirlwind of component approvals, press checks, and the small waits of travel required for each. For the next two weeks he will be seldom alone save for early mornings or late nights, and rarely on his own schedule.

This morning in Haneda serves as a counter to that sense of urgency. Drinking coffee in a chair with a view he can pause and think. About his cat, left at midnight the evening prior, the day prior, comfortably relaxed at the end of a quiet weekend. Of that same cat on the rooftop in the morning, looking out over San Francisco and sniffing the wind. He is happy on the rooftop, this cat, and the boy in Tokyo misses both spot and companion.

For so much of his life Tokyo has been about watching people. Sitting here as the airport wakes up, as business commuters and tourists make their way through security and start looking for coffee, the boy is happy. It’s been a while since he watched Tokyo this way.

At least a month.

Inspired by friends with similar jobs these layovers have come something of a ritual, a strange habit of intentional delay in what is already a very long commute. He began taking these breaks last year, in Hong Kong. Alone or with colleagues he would check in for his flight at Central, give up his suitcase of samples and clothing, and walk to a nice dinner, to a quiet evening drink with a view. Spending a few hours this way, before returning to San Francisco and the rest of his life, served as a firewall between the exhaustion of weeks in Dongguan factories and the exhaustion of jet lag. These breaks give him energy to return home with and become again responsible for the small parts of life, for dishes and laundry and the commute.

In twenty sixteen he has moved these breaks to Tokyo. Work is focused on Shanghai, and so Hong Kong is a less convenient option. Tokyo, with the government’s new focus on tourism and Haneda’s resurgence as an international airport, is becoming the perfect hub. Overnight flights from SF give him more than a full night’s sleep, more than enough rest to be awake when he finally makes it to Shanghai, some twenty hours later.

And the peace of Haneda, the fact that all announcements are played in Japanese, in English, and then in Mandarin, gives his mind some time to catch up to the rest of him, to accept the fact that he is once again on the road. Tokyo as rest stop is a new use for his favorite city.

In nineteen ninety seven Tokyo was a fairy tale for a boy on his way to university. It was his first trip abroad, other than Canada, and his first time alone without language.

In two thousand one Tokyo was a gateway, an opportunity, and the city he’d always dreamed of. Moving there got him out of the US, gave him a job, and showed him just how big the world could be.

In two thousand seven it provided a reminder of how peaceful a city could be, after years in the noise of Shanghai. It is this lesson he remembers now, and what brought him to this ritual layover.

In two thousand twelve he got to share his favorite places and the trains that connected them. Exploring Tokyo and Kyoto together they remembered how wonderful adventuring as a couple could be.

In two thousand thirteen, on their second trip to Japan together, they got engaged, in Fukuoka by the river.

And now, in two thousand sixteen Japan is a safe haven, a place to rest and relax, to hole up and to wander. On brief layovers he sings karaoke in Itabashi and climbs to rooftops in Shinjuku. He walks dozens of miles, and yet he also barely moves, spending hours chatting with old friends and hours reading in favorite neighborhoods.

Mostly he spends hours, like this morning, in Haneda.

Chocolate cake

Chocolate cake

A few doors down the street a folding sign sits on the sidewalk most days. In witty messages it suggests that passers by stop in for some dessert, for some chocolate. The jokes vary with the weather.

This shop, opened about a year ago, is part of the rapid gentrification of the neighborhood. Without question, the shift from $2 tacos to $2 chocolates is predicated on the gifts of rapidly rising incomes and shifting demographics. This change comes with the displacement that is making the Mission district of San Francisco a battle ground for policy folk of all flavors. Bicycle advocates, transit advocates, NIMBY folk, working class locals, service providers, and the ever increasing influx of people from all over the world.

The inviting sign exists entirely within this larger sphere. Yet for each passer by it exists for just one moment on this otherwise quiet block of 15th Street. And in that moment is where it shines, where the day’s joke about dessert has the chance to make us laugh, regardless of the greater context. All that matters in that moment is how clever the author was on any particular morning.

Walking home past that shop last night I was surprised to see it completely full, every seat taken and people standing indoors and out, enjoying strange confectionary pleasures. Surprised because this block of 15th Street is relatively quiet; There are no other commercial properties. And surprised because chocolates for a minimum of $2 is a specific market.

More than surprised though, I was happy. Because the women who opened this shop, who work endless hours in its stainless kitchen, have built something that brings joy. They have brought a new source of happiness into the world with their baking and confectionary, with their renovated storefront and their jokey sign, that did not exist before.

Listening to the laughter from inside as I walk past on a Saturday evening, I am reminded how much better we can make the world, through hard work, for other people.

Places I slept, 2015

San Francisco, CA

Santa Monica, CA

Dongguan, China

Kwun Tong, Hong Kong

Portland, OR

Shanghai, China

Mong Kok, Hong Kong

Las Vegas, NV

Davis, CA

Saguaro Lake, AZ

11th arrondissement Paris, France

Bella Center, Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen, Denmark

Halmstad, Sweden

Oslo, Norway

Øvre Eidfjord, Norway

Near Tysevær, Norway

Stavenger, Norway

Harrow, London, UK

Albuquerque, NM

Point Reyes Station, CA

San Diego, CA

Brooklyn, NY

Prattsville, NY

Cherry Hill, NJ

Salisbury Mills, NY

Morgan Hill, CA

Incline Village, NV

Tacoma, WA

Malibu, CA

Wuzhen, China

Chicago, IL

Union Pier, MI

New York City, NY

What a long list. Depending on the exact methods used to count multiple beds in Shanghai, the most ever, breaking 2013′s record. But even without that, an intense, overwhelming amount of travel. I made seven trips to China, adding up to more than 9 weeks on the ground there, and most of a month jet lagged upon returning home.

Twenty fifteen was a strange year. We went to four weddings and finally, healed enough to adventure, on a honeymoon. We saw new places: Paris, Sweden, Norway, parts of Upstate NY, Michigan, Arizona, and New Mexico for myself and Copenhagen, Sweden, Norway, and Korea for Tara. We were healthy enough to both play the full club ultimate season, which resulted in most of the California locations. And we saw many, many dear friends on trips to New York, Portland, LA, Chicago, Las Vegas, and Colorado (Tara). Being healthy enough to travel, to play, and to once again do small physical tasks without hesitation was a wonderful gift. We appreciate our mobility more than ever.

Mostly we worked, with the all-consuming dedication familiar to the Bay Area. As we look into twenty sixteen, the question of sustainability reappears, and how we answer it will determine much of not only the coming year, but our future in California. I’m excited to see where the future leads.

As for Mr. Squish, he took it easy this year, spending almost all of it in our San Francisco apartment. His main adventure? Coming to work with me, where he spent almost every Friday wandering the office, surprising and delighting my coworkers.

Previous year’s lists can be found below.

2014

2013

2012

2011

2010

2009

California rain

Rainy window

In San Francisco in December of twenty fifteen it rains for an entire week. Residents are exuberant and cheerful at the delays and worsening traffic. We need it” is a frequent comment in conversations between strangers. Rain jackets become daily companions, and are moved to the front of the closet. Layering immediately comes back in fashion and transplanted East coast folk feel strangely relaxed by the gloom.

In our small apartment the cat sits watching each drop in the morning. Almost four years old, he is a child of the new era; born in the expansion years of the California Hot Zone he is used to a life without precipitation. One morning I find him licking his lips on the kitchen table, looking out the window. He has just finished breakfast and has yet to proceed to the bathtub for water. Like his humans Mr. Squish is a creature of habit and ritual, and his mornings follow a tight pattern. First food, then litter box, and finally the tub for a long drink.

As he continues licking his lips I wonder if he would drink the sky’s drips as easily as those from the tub. Maybe in the doorway upstairs where he could shield his body and extend just head and tongue as he does into the faucet’s slow stream in the bathroom?

If it keeps raining we shall try.

Gray skies and hotel windows

Sitting twenty two stories up above Shanghai, I watch the weather and listen to music. Or rather, I look into the weather, a fog of fading white that makes tall buildings invisible only a mile away. I look down at the roofs of shorter buildings, many still under construction. I look at the wall of the nearest tower, its surface covered in the soot of years in this air.

Shanghai’s view does not surprise, though friends ask when I post photos how I, asthmatic, cope with the air. I cope like everyone does, by breathing in, breathing out, and moving forward. By focusing on what there is to do in front of me rather than what there is all around me. Instead of focusing on what there is inside all of us.

It is Sunday, and I am relishing the peace in between weeks on the move. Sometimes that is the greatest gift of hotels in foreign countries.

In May of twenty thirteen I spent a week in Tokyo for work. Living out of a perfectly-designed-for-it’s-size hotel room, I wore a suit and went to izakayas with customers in the evenings. It was the culmination of years of dreaming; suddenly I had a job that took me to one of my favorite places, that gave me a place to stay and a view that I loved. Taking the subway around the city to meetings gave me a glimpse into being a business man in a network of concrete built for them. Pouring out of Hamamatsucho station with the crowd in the evening, walking the two blocks to my room at Hotel MyStay, and taking part in the Tokyo rituals again after so long left me in a perfect mood. With enough time spent alone, work travel has a way of building an atmosphere. After three days of this compact life I was ready for company, mentally.

The National’s Trouble Will Find Me was released that third day. Letting it play in that tiny hotel room for the three days that followed gave me a fresh environment to layer the new music on, to integrate it into. The album became a soundtrack to that week, to convenience store breakfasts and late night FaceTime calls. Now, two and a half years later, a lifetime away, sitting in a hotel room twenty two stories up above Shanghai, those songs still takes me immediately back to Tokyo.

Don’t make me read your mind
You should know me better than that

My current hotel room is much larger, China not lacking space the way Tokyo does. The residents also don’t enjoy the neat confinement of items, the precise layout required to maximize utility. There are extra mirrors and more wood than strictly necessary. Outside of this room China sprawls, with more huge buildings going up to demonstrate ability rather than fill need. Driving to Ningbo last week we crossed the long bridge that spans the bay, avoiding the even longer drive around its circumference through Hangzhou. That longer circle was the only option when I traveled this route frequently by bus in 06. Reaching the far shore, the bay’s south edge, we saw a cluster of towers, maybe thirty, residential and at least twenty floors each.

What are those,” someone asked, meaning what is that town, what is that city.

No one answered. A cluster of identical buildings, they were clearly built in a single go. There was no town nearby, nothing else on the shore of the bay. Why so many apartment towers then, and why so tall? Because space is not an issue in China, and size even less. There are millions of people within an easy drive, millions more within a few hours, all seeking housing and an opportunity. This is China.

In Tokyo everything is tightly constrained, each building wrapped in between all the others. So much so that buildings are often strangely shaped, L’s or T’s or other letters, unable to be squares or circles.

Jennifer you are not the only reason
My head is boiling and my head is freezing

And I remember steaming my suit before meetings, looking in the mirror while working through my pitch for the day. Organizing my notes in the evening and lying on the bed looking out the window as night fell on the city.

Tokyo will always be with me, part of the story of this music. Or this music will always be Tokyo. Some times blending a place and a feeling, a set of songs and a mood, shapes everything we do for years. Sometimes it is just a way of etching time into our minds, deeply enough that years later we are astonished to realize how long ago that was, May of twenty thirteen.

If I stay here, trouble will find me
If I stay here, I’ll never leave

Quoted lyrics from The National’s I Should Live in Salt’, Fireproof’, and the title track off of the 2013 album Trouble Will Find Me

The changing weather

In twenty fifteen the first week of September bakes San Francisco. Several days break 90 F and fans are out of stock. In the Mission temperatures close in on 100 in the late afternoon. At work in Oakland, which is hotter than SF, everyone complains, their houses not built for such temperatures. There are few wrap-around porches in Berkeley, less air conditioning in San Francisco. Heaters for the foggy summer were our primary concern when picking apartments. Heaters and windows, to let in the scant sun.

Instead we brainstorm ways to keep our apartment, picked for its long exposure to the afternoon sun, cool for Mr. Squish. Our first tries are not successful, and we come home to clouds of black fur drifting through the still air as he tries desperately to shed some insulation. On the hottest night we bathe him, and he lounges in the water. Afterwards he wanders the apartment contentedly, wet and dripping in the evening breeze. We sleep with every window open, happy to be part of the slowly cooling city.

On Wednesday, unwilling to leave him to bake, I take him to work. We drive together across the Bay bridge and lounge in the office’s air conditioning. He is a favorite there, drifting from room to room unnoticed until he leaps onto a colleague’s desk in search of snacks. As cats go he’s calm in the face of surprises, and welcomes the adventure.

In Tahoe the weekend before the low lake level was a constant presence. We had to swim or be ferried out to the boat, and most docks were constrained to shallow-drawing vessels. Watching their skeletal structures rise so high above the water I thought of the foresight to have built this far out in the first place, and of droughts that must have come before. I thought of Shasta, already low some four years ago, and wonder if house boating would be fun still. Could we enjoy an escape in an environment so obviously lacking sustenance, so clearly in need of water?

In Tahoe we could, relaxing in the breeze coming off the lake. In San Francisco, that first week of September, we cannot. In the western portions of the city this weather is less extreme, and the ocean provides some breeze. In the Mission, flat and rarely washed clean by rain or wind, heat that endures past dark is a rare feeling. Brooklyn, a few weeks ago, was both hotter and more humid, but the stick of an East Coast summer is to be expected, and evenings out of doors stretch late as the sky cools.

And yet how quickly all weather disappears. This morning, sitting with the windows open, San Francisco is a pleasant 61 F, and Mr. Squish joins me beneath the blanket I’ve spread over my feet, glad of the cover. Neither of us can remember the week prior and our reluctance to touch. Our bodies have forgotten, holding only what they can feel at the moment.

Rattling bottles

On the street outside the recycle bin lid thumps open against the side of the building. It is eight pm and just beginning to get dark. Someone begins digging through the bin, pulling out cans and bottles with clangs and dings, the mechanical sounds of a practiced activity. After a while someone else joins, or tries to, and there is a brief debate, some muttering, and then casual conversation, a little too low to hear. Three floors up I sit with windows open to cool the house. Homeless and searching for income the unseen pair below have agreed not to fight over my scraps. This is life in San Francisco in the twenty first century, living in the Mission. While I was at work today someone peed on my garage door, leaving me to walk my bike around the puddle. Between my house and the Bart station one block away several people have slept and defecated in the last few days, and the street is alternately cleaned and crudely dirty.

This is life in the Mission district of San Francisco in twenty fifteen.

Tending our strawberry plants on the rooftop I watch the sun set over the hill while the fog rolls in, wrapping around the base of the Sutro Tower. Many days in the summer the entire tower will be engulfed by six pm, leaving the height of the hill itself a mystery, the fog pouring over and down into the Castro, into Duboce Triangle and lower Haight. The cat and I enjoy this varied weather. He sits in the doorway to the stairwell, feeling the breeze, feeling his fur ruffle after the long day alone in the hot apartment. He relishes these breezy evenings, as do I. One block away, on the rooftop of an expensive apartment complex, someone else watches the sunset too, in shorts and a hoodie. We are too far apart to even acknowledge each other. There is a similar building closer, with swimming pool on the roof, to whose inhabitants I could speak with raised voice. That nearer roof is empty though, the residents so new, the building so recently renovated that they do not venture out of doors on week days. Yet residents of all three buildings enjoy these evening views of the Bay Bridge and downtown SF to the east, Twin Peaks and the Sutro Tower to the west.

This is life in the Mission district of San Francisco, where studios go for $3,800 a month and where 4,000 people sleep on the streets.

In many ways San Francisco is the future, with apps that summon cars and dinners and movies and so many things, with electric scooters for rent and wifi in bars. San Francisco is the future in other ways too, with no rain, with no housing, with an incredible income gap, and with a liberal urban population that did not grow up in these hilly neighborhoods.

This morning the escalator to the 16th St Bart station was out of order again. I was not surprised, there had been several pounds of trash pushing up against the bottom of it when I walked out of the station the day prior, and often that trash gets sucked in to the bottom, jamming and breaking the escalator. This trash comes from the dozens of people who spend all day in the plaza at the metro exit, homeless and searching for help. The escalator is repaired weekly, the people left to wander the streets. Later in the evening they will search for cans in the bins outside my apartment. They share, argue, and curse out the fancy cars that have started encroaching on their sleeping spots, the rooftop terraces that host parties they can barely see from the ground.

This is life in San Francisco today, forefront of the future in all regards.

Listening after dark

Lying in bed at night I can hear so much. With eyes open after the lights are out, book down, and mind clear, I have nothing to do but listen. I hear cars on the 101, which is elevated a few blocks northeast. I hear the occasional cyclist on Minna, below my windows. The distant roar of a jet passing overhead after leaving SFO to the south. Closer, someone pushes a shopping cart down Minna, stopping every few houses. Hunting recycling. Someone yells something a block or two away, up Mission. There is no response. A siren moves, fading, in a more distant part of the city, SoMa maybe. And more 101 traffic. The aural landscape tonight is mostly highway. Mostly cars.

The light from the neighbors’ bathroom goes on, shining in through my bathroom window, both rooms sharing the same light well at the center of the building. More cars. Their light goes off. The family in the house next door is talking, a low murmur through the windows. Which stops. One person comes out into the tiny courtyard between our buildings. The thin door bangs behind them.

After a while they go back in side, having stood silently while out. Smoking? No click of lighter or sound of match.

The neighbors bathroom light goes on again. And off. Much shorter.

The cars continue on the 101 as the clock hits eleven pm. The calming background noises of the city as Wednesday ticks toward Thursday.

Time for bed.

Places I slept, 2014

Richmond, San Francisco, CA

Santa Monica, CA

Malibu, CA

Mission, San Francisco, CA

Brooklyn, NY

Manhattan, NY

Somewhere between Albany, NY and Chicago, IL

Somewhere between Lincoln, NE and Denver, CO

Elko, NV

Ft. Collins, CO

Santa Cruz, CA

Nice, CA

Kowloon, Hong Kong

Dongguan, China

Shanghai, China

Mong Kok, Hong Kong

Sheung Wan, Hong Kong

Wan Chai, Hong Kong

Guerneville, CA

San Diego, CA

Las Vegas, NV

Yosemite, CA

Makati, Manila, Philippines

Alabang, Manila, Philippines

Bohol, Philippines

Ebisu, Tokyo, Japan

Itabashi, Tokyo, Japan

Timber Cove, CA

Walden, CO

In many ways 2014 was the best year ever. After getting engaged in Japan in 2013 we got married in Colorado in April, surrounded by friends from all over the world. We saw Japan again, and the Philippines. We took a train across the US. We moved in SF, to an apartment with better light near the train. I got a wonderful new job and did an amazing amount of travel. I didn’t quite reach as many different places slept as 2013, which is fine, I hope it remains a record for some time. More than 2012, 2011, 2010, or 2009, when I first began to keep track.

In many ways 2014 was the worst year ever. After hurting myself worse than ever before I spent two weeks in hospitals in New York, and required a train ride across the country to get home. I missed a month of work. Doctor’s visits, physical therapy, and a slow return to normal activity followed. I didn’t get to play any ultimate at all. Tara had knee surgery in July. We spent much of the year indoors, unable to adventure. We had to cancel our honeymoon.

And yet, looking back at how many adventures we still managed, I can only laugh. We went to four weddings, not counting our own. We saw new places (Dongguan for me, Hong Kong for Tara, and Yosemite, Bohol, and the cross country train for both of us) and so many old friends. If 2014 was the worst, it was also a reminder how lucky we are.

Here’s to the next.

Also, Mr. Squish’s list for 2014, for those requesting:

Richmond, San Francisco, CA Mission, San Francisco, CA Ft. Collins, CO Petaluma, CA Walden, CO

He is still a traveling cat, albeit one currently curled on my feet, asleep.

Just around the corner

On a Sunday in October we are in search of a bike shop. Between the two of us we have a bald tire and aging brakes. In 2014 we’ve increased our miles ridden, part of the transition to a single car and a Mission apartment. In exchange, bicycles that have neither needed nor recieved maintenance in years are due and deserving. Over lunch we search out a place, now an act of skimming crowd-sourced recommendations that becomes more familiar with every move. We rely on those we have never met so regularly, bus drivers and engineers, architects and grid operators, that asking for recommendations anonymously is an easy habit. It’s an exchange made more personal by profiles and star ratings for restaurants and shops, if not more important. And with each recommendation tested we become more comfortable in this, our third San Francisco neighborhood. It is a comfort built on learning, slowly, where to go for what. For bicycles this is our first try. Our last cycle shop was in the Sunset, and evolved during our time in the neighborhood, Roaring Mouse transforming into Everybody Bikes as the former moved to the Marina.

In the Richmond we did not have a local favorite, preferring the 38 and a walk to a chill ride home through Golden Gate Park most nights.

In Shanghai we had many mechanics, all over the city, wherever they were needed.

On Nanyang Lu behind Plaza 66 one evening, having gotten a flat on a broken bottle. Somewhere in the old town one night after a volleyball game when the starter on my electric scooter failed. Mostly, though, on Yongjia Lu at Yueyang Lu, a block from our last apartment. A tiny shop, really the front of a house, filled with equipment packed densly in each evening and pulled out on to the sidewalk during business hours. The man who ran it also made keys.

On these earlier searches we mostly did not have Yelp, did not rely on unknown people, save for the mechanics themselves, or other cyclists met on the street. Instead we used the bicycles themselves to explore and discover.

Like all such searches, in the Mission we are seeking both convenience and quality, focusing on a small area and hoping that our neighborhood can support the service. It can, and we find sevaral options, settling on one that is both open and near our favorite coffee shop.

Years ago I wrote about neighborhood boundaries, and familiarity. Building that knowledge again in the Mission I think of how transportation defines it, how bicycles expand it and reward casual exploration due to the low cost of going one more block, or an unfamiliar route. Without too much concern for one way streets, traffic, or parking, bicycles are better than cars in this regard. They are better than walking as well, for the limited energy expended to cover six blocks in all permutations. Or our bicycles will be, once they have brakes and tires.

We own four bicycles, though only two are available on this Sunday. The oldest, my Haro, purchased in Venice in 2006, is still in Los Angeles at a friend’s house. Having come with us from LA to Houston in 2008, to San Francisco in 2009, it returned to LA in 2011, less than perfectly suited to the wiggle and San Francisco’s hills.

The second, one of two old Peugeot frames, was damaged by a car on 19th Ave in 2010 and, though having been repaired several times, now needs a new front tire, perhaps wheel, and sits without either in our garage.

Two working bicycles then, just enough for exploration, for a quick trip to the gym and some meandering to a new lunch spot. Just enough to take us to the edges of our neighborhood and to expand those edges. Part of learning each new portion of San Francisco or of our earlier cities is figuring out where the boundaries are, where neighborhoods end and to what distance errands can be run. In the Mission, one of San Francisco’s few flat neighborhoods, our reach is wider than it was in either the Sunset or the Richmond.

Here then, finally healthy and home long enough rebuild the center of a life that has been moved and shaken this year, we seek a bike shop, a place to repair and replace. We find our answer three blocks away, Box Dog Bikes. Checking out the bikes for sale while my brakes are replaced, I think of Roaring Mouse, and of my old resource in Shanghai, the man who opened his front doors every morning, and made keys as well as repaired bicycles. We change cities and neighborhoods, and yet seek the same assistance.

No surprise then that in each the shops are not far, around the corner and waiting to be found.

Downtown, by the train

For the first time in the United States we have the life we had in Asia. At great but worthwhile expense, we live downtown near the train. In San Francisco this means the Mission, and this means Bart.

Three years ago we lived in a studio in the Sunset, half a block from the N-Judah, a Muni above-ground train line. The studio was wonderful. Giant west-facing windows made for perfect light, and the neighborhood was comfortingly Asian. Rent was reasonable, even with parking, albeit double what we’d paid for a 1 bedroom in Houston scant months before. As for the train, well, proximity was often its best feature. Locals refer to the N jokingly, if at all, and avoid any reliance on it’s twisting route, which is often blocked by cars at 9th and Irving and delayed at the Duboce and Church switch to underground operation. We used it first frequently and then less so, moving to bicycle or car instead.

For years though we regretted leaving that studio, at least on Sundays. Our one bedroom in the Richmond faced east, and so lost the light early in the day. Coupled with the Cigarettes Cheaper crowd next door and the Walgreens loading bay across the street that apartment became exactly what we’d hoped to avoid: a large house with poor light, loud neighbors, and a two-car commute. Looking back now, only months removed, it seems impossible to imagine. Yet for three years we both drove an hour plus each way out of San Francisco. One north, one south, far enough to make most moves impossible for one commute or the other.

And so from the Richmond we took the bus downtown, and walked Fillmore in the night. We went to shows and to bars, but not as many. We took more cabs, and drove more often to friends’ houses.

Our move to the Richmond was built on two desires. Most importantly, a cat, which our Sunset landlord would not allow. Secondly, to have a spare room for guests, even though several had braved our studio, slept on couch or kitchen floor. The living room was useful, and allowed us to easily welcome guests from all over the world. That apartment gave us Mr. Squish, fulfilling our exact request for a cat.

As I write these words he is sprawled on the couch across from me, content in his new home, only the second he has known. He is happier, though that could be the Karlstad sofa he is lounging on, a wedding present to ourselves in a blue that matches our new house. Moving with a cat has long been a dream of ours. Taking him on our adventures, if not yet rock climbing, and watching him explore new spaces are some of our favorite moments.

Why is this apartment so much more welcoming than our old one?

The answers are easy: light, size, and location.

In three months we’ve had friends come for dinner, colleagues bring lunch, and visitors crash on that couch. We’ve walked home from baseball games and taken the train to the airport. We’ve taken the train to brunch at friends’ houses in the East Bay and to work, novelties both. In the last week neither of us drove to work for two days in a row, the first time that has happened since we moved to San Francisco.

Why is this such a change, why did we ever forgo it, and how did we know we wanted it? These questions repeat themselves to me on my walks to Bart, on my train rides home.

This is such a change because we’ve each gained at a minimum two hours of mental time each day. Four hours multiplied by five days is twenty hours a week we gained as a couple with the move. Twenty hours a week, minimum, of additional thinking, reading, and working is time almost impossible to value. Another half a work week. Another two and a half days of paid working hours. Yes, rents are higher in the Mission. Yes, getting rid of one car helped keep our expenses within a similar range. But clearly, at twenty plus hours, we were undervaluing our time, undervaluing each other.

We gave up those hours initially because we had to. We’d gotten an apartment in the Sunset as the cheapest place we could find in San Francisco proper, and a good place to start our life here from. It was. We then got jobs out of the city, in opposite directions. They were good opportunities, and so we put up with the cost in cars and miles, knowing it would not be forever. When we moved to the Richmond, we shortened my commute at Tara’s expense. We balanced traffic and distance and the desire for a cat as best we could. And still we knew it would not be forever.

How did we know what we wanted? How did we know we’d be happier in a smaller apartment within walking distance of a train line, with only one car, in a more urban environment?

Shanghai.

We have lived in dense urban environments, ridden the subway or an electric scooter to work or to school, and commuted in the dense throngs of people rare for most Americans. We have lived in those environments and thrived. We have become comfortable with the benefits of dense living, of good transportation, and of shared public space rather than large private residences.

In America these lessons are difficult to learn. Apartments in dense areas with good public transit are expensive and restricted to a handful of cities. In many, like San Francisco, they are restricted to select neighborhoods in those cities. In Shanghai, in Tokyo, in Hong Kong, these lessons are simply life. They are learned on the train to grade school and in the tiny urban apartments of university. Density is not an option but the ground rule, public transportation not a luxury but the base layer of the urban environment.

We are lucky, in San Francisco, to live downtown near the train. In Shanghai it was the only place we could live, there was no other option. In Japan before that I lived in Saitama, outside of Tokyo proper, and yet on a line that ran directly into Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, Shibuya. Out of the city and yet of the city in a way rare for Americans. Able to work and shop in the global megacity and still go for a run in the mornings along the Arakawa river.

In San Francisco, in the Mission, guests from out of town drop in for single night and leave early in the morning for meetings in the Financial District, or to tour the Embarcadero. What was once an hour away by bus is ten minutes by Bart. Waiting twenty minutes or more for the N has been replaced by taking any train out of dozens on a workday morning. We often do not drive for an entire weekend, and soon for an entire work week.

Yet in many ways this feels like avoiding the problems. The N still goes 30 minutes between trains on the weekends. The Richmond is still 40 minutes from Powell by bus, an hour twenty or more from the East Bay without free transfer. That we no longer care is a symptom of the problem, and a reason public transit remains a fractured experience. In Shanghai all the trains are run as one unit. In Japan a variety of companies with huge networks work together on train time tables and station infrastructure. In San Francisco there are only three stops on Bart in residential neighborhoods.

Yet 
I no longer complain about transit in San Francisco, instead promoting Bart to arriving guests. Limited, yes, but effective, and valuable, as was my line in Saitama. These visits and easier commutes, then, are the benefits of living here. And in many ways we are at last at home in San Francisco in a way we have not felt before.

Capital F future

Sitting in a luxury hotel in Chang’an Zhen, I am thinking about the future.

Not the future as in my personal five year plan, though it may turn out that way. Nor the capital F future of living computers and jet packs, though it may turn out that way too. Instead I am thinking about our future, the shared strangeness that is both hard to see and probably already here, somewhere.

I spend quite a bit of time thinking about this future. Mostly from strange Chinese cities though not usually from luxury hotels. It’s a future that seems to slip into view when I’m walking home alone through the evening heat, past street stalls and electric bikes. I find it under neon offering nothing, the store fronts long closed and falsely alluring in the night. It’s a future that I see often after sitting in an Ajisen and eating cucumbers for a while, after drinking an Asahi by myself while reading Fallows and Paul Hawken, Chipchase and Posnanski.

I think about the heating planet and the bliss of air conditioning in Hong Kong this week. I think of the costs of oil, and my job making plastic. I think of those giving up air travel and look at my location. I think about my favorite writers and how frequently they fly. I think about how frequently I fly and whether I would care about flying, about all of this, if I’d never started.

Would I care about the world this way without having sat in so many Ajisens in so many Chinese manufacturing cities, reading on paper and phones and drinking Japanese beer? Unlikely, I think. Without so many evenings watching the lights come on in Chinese apartment towers, how would I know to value all of us? Without watching the neon blink back and forth and eventually off, watching the parks fill with people enjoying the evening and then empty to silence, how would I have learned the size of cities? Without flying, how would I have met so many people, learned from so many places? Without the energy expenditure that damages it, how would I have ever understood our planet?

I watch two men honk at one another, scooting past on e-bikes. They are chatting as they disappear side by side into the gathering dusk. I watch cars at the intersection, red lights hold them stationary, engines running. I wonder what makes so many people want to buy a car, and what would make them stop.

Mostly I think about the difference between making things and growing things, between working and building. After that I think about the difference between being alive, looking at the moon as it rises behind the skyscrapers , and not. It is a difference I only recently started to appreciate.

What will the world will look like when we are gone? Will we have left anything good behind, intentionally or no?

I haven’t yet given up flying. I’m here in Chang’an Zhen. I haven’t yet given up making things, I’m here visiting a factory for work. More importantly, I haven’t yet given up on anything. Walking back from Ajisen I wonder if I will, if the cumulative weight of the capital F future will change my life. I wonder what the next five years will bring, and ten. Whether we’ll all be living different lives, or still wondering. Will Chinese cities still feel like the future in this way on lonely evenings, an amazing combination of factories and urban density, of modern trains and hand-repaired motorcycles, of destroyed air? Or will the world have changed in all directions, become more evenly distributed, for better or worse. On evenings like this I can see both possibilities, a future here and yet often invisible .

Watching the two men on e-bikes fade into the darkness down the street I know one thing: even in the 90 degree F heat and 90% humidity of southern China, I’d rather we all biked than gave up airplanes, and each other.

The city enables

In the past year I slept in thirty five different zip codes. At an average of one every ten days, not accounting for length of stay or multiple visits, the pace of life becomes clear. San Francisco may be my home, or more accurately it may be my home base.

Thirty five is by no means a record for humans. There are those who travel daily, who work or live on multiple continents. I also do not see this as a great gift. This number of beds simply reflects a job and a kind of life. This much travel certainly does affect my connection to any place, and would anyone’s. By changing how often we are home and what we think of home when we arrive, how much we value down time anywhere as opposed to down time somewhere. Unpacking this week I threw clothes on top of clothes and went off again, if only for hours. Today I will sort them, wash them, fold them and stow the memories of where we were last week, where we were the week before.

San Francisco has all the makings of a good home base. SFO is an excellent airport with non-stop connections domestically and internationally. Situated on the edge of a continent, and on the edge of a major economy, the city gives access both deeper in to the US and farther out, to Asia, Australia and beyond. By being a port it hosts not just airplanes, but boats, ships, and the occasional train. By being a center of innovation and corporate development it receives attention from the global media, communications companies, and infrastructure investments from service providers. Because it is in California, the weather is often fair and rarely horrible.

The downsides are usually a product of that success, and occasionally of the location. Because of the weather, fog sometimes shuts down the airport and often curtails the warmth of evenings. Because of the small size and popularity, rents range from expensive to outlandish, meaning even poor dwellings are hotly contested. Because of California’s strange government the public transit, safety, and education could all be better, while taxes are high, for the US. Because of the hills, walking and biking are harder than in many places, and the clique-like nature of the various neighborhoods is enhanced. Likewise, because of the hills, cellular service varies from excellent to non-existent within a span of blocks.

Yet in some ways San Francisco feels too easy, feels too comfortable. The weather does not threaten, and while earthquakes remain a danger they are too unpredictable to guide daily life. Seasons do not have the same urgency, with summer the gloomiest time of year. Likewise the affluence of young people in this startup-fueled culture gives much of the city a surreal air, with expensive restaurants featuring wait lists two days after opening.

Still, sitting down town in the rain, waiting for a meeting, I realize the benefits of being based here, in one of the major coastal cities in the US, with excellent food and transit links, with a massive base of capital and culture, education and talent. 

It’s a good place to live. As much as I’m here, anyway.

Places I slept, 2013

San Francisco, CA

Santa Monica, CA

Cherry Hill, NJ

Manhattan, NY

Brooklyn, NY

Danbury, CT

Toronto, Canada

Green Bay, WI

Las Vegas, NV

Shanghai, China

Yangzhou, China

Shenzhen, China

Kowloon, Hong Kong

Miami, FL

El Paso, TX

Hamamatsucho, Tokyo

Harajuku, Tokyo

Yanasegawa, Saitama

Fukuoka, Japan

Kagoshima, Japan

Osaka, Japan

Santa Cruz, CA

Belden Town, CA

Guerneville, CA

Salt Lake City, UT

Portland, OR

Chico, CA

Ciudad Juarez, Mexico

Scottsdale, AZ

Itabashi, Tokyo

Malibu, CA

Fort Collins, CO

Wan Chai, Hong Kong

Trinidad, CA

Moss Beach, CA

In so many ways 2013 was an excessive year. This list, at 35 separate zip codes, reflects that excess. An average of one new zip code slept in every 10.7 days. More than 2012, 2011, 2010, and 2009. And many of these multiple times, on multiple trips. 4 different beds in Shanghai alone that are here listed as one location. 2 different beds in Santa Monica. Twice to the same hotel in Tokyo, the same apartments in New York and La Quinta in El Paso. For the first time ever, Las Vegas, Fukuoka, Idabashi, Shenzhen, Malibu, and Kagoshima, a city I’ve wanted to visit since first reading Number9dream in 2002

And yet more and more this list is a reflection of exhaustion and a nebulous toll on our environment. 2013 also marked the first year I considered giving up flying.

2013 was also filled with amazing things. From Tara asking me to marry her and me vice versa in Japan in May to winning the Hong Kong Ultimate tournament with old friends and new in October, it was a year that saw adventures I’d never imagined.

Here’s to 2014. May it bring more adventures for all of us, though perhaps not one every 10 days. I’d like to spend a bit more time with my cat.

Then again, he’s been traveling too. His list for 2013:

San Francisco, CA

Fort Collins, CO

Petaluma, CA

Malibu, CA

Impressive, no?

Walking the High Line

In New York for a week at the end of October we work from coffee shops and visit old friends in the dark. Breaks like these, weeks on other coasts and other shores, keep friendships and our feel for the country alive. Yet laptops in one city are much like those in any other, in fact the same. And so on Friday afternoon we put them down and head out to see something of New York.

We end up on the High Line, which neither of us have ever seen. On the first of November Manhattan is warm and welcoming, and the other tourists likewise calm. We walk and talk, take pictures and breath the air. Across the Hudson we can see Stevens, where a cousin went. I remember looking at this view from the other side on her graduation, an event that seems both recent and forever ago.

The High Line, like the pedestrian sections of Broadway, gives me hope for cities. Gives me hope for American cities, at least, so long under siege from the automobile, the highway, the culture of divided lane no left turn. It is a small thing, this elevated railway line repurposed as a tourist path, an exploratory walkway. And yet, photographing construction from its glass sides, I think of the elevated path through Xujiahui Park, and the benefits of investing in comforts for people, rather than machines.

New York seems well, despite the challenges of being home to eight plus million. In the late fall of 2013 it seems like a city in growth mode, and the feeling of motion and life is a joy to be amidst.

Towards the end of the day we sit in a small park further south. I nap as my companion answers a work phone call. On other benches men read the newspaper and women listen to music. Despite the street and trucks scant feet away, we all relax and breathe in the last of the sunshine.

In Union Square we watch the sun set over the farmer’s market, taking pictures of the skyline. We are not alone, amidst a group of New Yorkers and tourists holding our phones skyward to capture the spectrum of colors that has stopped all of us in our tracks. The two of us are not comfortable as tourists by nature, and yet so often that is what we are, wandering through cities that are not our homes in search of new things. In a dozen trips to New York we have yet to climb the Empire State, or see the Statue of Liberty save from the plane. On this Friday, though, we wander enough to feel like visitors, mingle enough to feel at home, and are content. Lost amid the fruit stalls, hearing Chinese and French, the comfort is not of New York, but of people, of a city large enough to become lost in and large enough to produce beauty accidentally. Unbidden, I recall scooter rides through Shanghai on November Sundays six years ago. Like this we would then wander, out of doors in the sunshine with no specific destination or curfew. Those were some of our first adventures together, climbing abandoned buildings and exploring back alleys, zipping around turns on our electric scooter. There too we did not seek famous temples or specific buildings, content to wander as traffic took us, to turn where our eyes led us.

Maybe it is the smell of a city in fall, or the trees in Union Square, or the remove from the rest of our lives that brings those images back. Maybe it is simply watching each other relax and smile, or maybe it is our joy in exploration. No matter which, standing this afternoon on the deck of an old railroad above new construction, watching the workers below, we are happy and still for a moment in an otherwise well-scheduled trip.

After six years of taking our time, of exploring together, we will be married in the spring, adding one more set of promises to a long list of hopes. Standing in the New York sunshine with overlapping memories of all the cities we’ve seen together, the future looks promising.

Fleeing the dark

In a window seat on a bus from Changshu to Shanghai as the sun sets, my eyes linger on dark towers. Along side the highway buildings both finished and not form huge rectangles of black against the fading sky. These clusters of massive apartment buildings lie vacant, whole complexes of fifteen or twenty towers of thirty stories plus. They form the leading edge of Shanghai’s expansion, like the foam on a wave. Unoccupied and often incomplete they will one day be home to thousands, one day be connected to Xujiahui or Zhongshan Park by subway lines as yet unbuilt. Today they are huge monuments to investment and urbanization, massive Stonehenge-like clusters without light. From my seat on the bus, bouncing with each lane change, these dark pillars are a sign post of my journey. I am heading home, fleeing the gathering dark of China’s smaller cities for the lights, towers, restaurants, and friends of Shanghai.

Bus rides are always jarring, a series of jerks and swerves, loud and full contact. Luckily towards the front someone has begun a conversation with the driver and he no longer focuses on the horn. I appreciate their sacrifice after two hours of its sharp peals. Alongside and around us smaller cars weave, looking for openings. Occasionally to the side one of the buildings is alight, one of the towers filled with families cooking dinner. I am not alone on this flight from small town darkness, the seats surrounding are filled with old and young. Across the aisle an old man and his wife discuss their evening plans, drinking tea in glass containers they’ve brought. We are all trying to get somewhere other than Changshu, trying to make it to the big city before dinner.

This is not a new situation. For a decade now I’ve been coming home to the lights of Shanghai. By train, bus, or car, and occasionally by taxi I have fled the dark of smaller cities, of factories and rural areas for the comfort of the world’s largest city. I have fled the dark of Changzhou at two am by standing on the side of the highway and flagging down passing sleeper busses. The bus that finally stopped that night was filled to overflowing, and I sat for two and a half hours on a bucket perched atop the entrance stairs, holding myself upright on the driver’s seat. Other times I have stayed in cold hotels, unable to find a way home, trapped by work in the dark.

The desire to flee to an urban area at the approach of darkness is a strange one for me, having grown up in the countryside of upstate New York. For many years I spoke of it only briefly, uncomfortable with how quickly the desire to return to Shanghai in the evening began to sound like a fear of the dark. In many ways it is. And yet I have spent months in smaller Chinese cities and villages without this panic, without needing to flee. Somehow it is the combination of work and of having no place to sleep, of the color of the sky and the smell of the air that makes me so eager to leave. Against the burning pollution haze of afternoon becoming evening I feel far from where I belong in a way rare to someone so rarely stationary, so long removed from my childhood home. It is a feeling both unnerving and glorious.

Closer in to Shanghai’s center there are lights in most buildings, and now it is the dark that surprises. We are almost home, and the idea of human life no longer seems strange. Traffic becomes too heavy even for the horn, and the last ten kilometers threatens to take hours. I grow restless with my fellow passengers, and eager to be finished with this journey. Spotting a metro stop, one too far north for the station name to be anything familiar, a group of us asks to be let off at the corner, and are. And like that, in an instant that was actually three hours, I am back in the city, and no longer seeking light.

Another decade

The evening comes to Shanghai through a filter of haze. It’s been a clear week here in the middle of October, clouds and blue skies every day. There’s still a tinge to the air though, something in the smell of the place that’s unmistakable. Shanghai has changed in the past ten years, but the smell remains. I step out of an airplane into the open air. Across the tarmac Pudong’s Terminal 1 beckons, a huge square of light against the gathering dusk. For a moment I linger at the top of the truck-born staircase, letting the memory take hold.

Ten years and two months ago I stood, stunned, on a similar staircase, on this same runway, in the same last moments of daylight. The details match: the yellow sky of pollution and arc lights, the huge rectangle of Terminal 1, the line of other passengers before and behind, and the smell. Around these details, everything has changed. Terminal 1 is mirrored now by Terminal 2, opened in 2006 and far more frequently used. The road leading to the airport has been re-done, and the maglev built. Metro Line 2 now reaches both airports, stretching across the entire city east to west. And the sprawl of Pudong has reached ever further east, though not quite to the airport’s edge.

I have changed far more than the view has. I am no longer surprised China Eastern is too cheap for a jetway. Walking down the stairs to the waiting bus I look around. There are a dozen foreign faces on the bus to the terminal. That first evening I was the only one, alone with out language, landing in Shanghai on a flight from Tokyo. In August 2003 at the height of the SARS panic few foreigners wanted to visit China.

Fewer still were looking to relocate.

Customs is no longer a strange labyrinth of paperwork. Instead it’s a routine I’ve been through dozens of times, if not yet a hundred. I do the math quickly. Sixty? The HSBC ATM I rely on for RMB has moved, to the front of the customs line rather than just after. Or is that Terminal 2? It’s been years since I used the old Terminal 1 and the two are mirrors, which makes recalling the differences more difficult. I do remember this building though, in good times: boarding a flight with a frisbee team, on our way to Korea or Hong Kong. We drank beer purchased from the vending machine in the check-in hall all the way through customs, through security. I remember pausing to set the open cans on the  X-ray machine as we went through the metal detector, laughing with the guards and teammates. So much has changed.

I remember meeting friends here, arriving from the US, the UK or Japan, to visit me and to explore Shanghai, all of China. I remember being met upon my return in November of 2004, having fled the US again following Bush’s re-election. The symmetry of all these trips is hard to escape, standing in line at customs.

Ten years two months and three days have passed from my first footsteps in this country. I slept in a windowless hotel room on Nanjing East, the pedestrian street, my first week in Shanghai. A horrible idea, it was the cheapest option I could find. I ate at Lawson’s the first night, a sad familiar brand from my life in Japan. I was unprepared for that first landing in China, without friends, language skills, employment, or housing. I spent three days looking for an internet cafe. During that first week in the hotel on Nanjing I walked home from an interview in Hongqiao. Those first few weeks were a challenge and an opportunity to let curiosity overcome uncertainty. My surprise at stepping out of the airplane into the open air of evening on Pudong’s runway that first evening turned out to be only a small shock, if a lasting one.

In Shanghai in 2013 I step into a taxi, glad to be able to speak Chinese again after months away. Gao’an Lu and Hengshan Lu, I tell the driver. And, as we start moving, the air looks good today, tell me about the weather.”

As I’ve written before, in some ways Shanghai will always be home. Ten years since I first touched down, I am glad to have another look from the top of those stairs, staring west into China with the ocean to my back and the wind in my face.

Shanghai again, forever

Like that, I am back. After six months of travel, work, and daily life I board an airplane, transfer, and return to Shanghai. The ritual of packing, driving to SFO, boarding, and drifting through Asiana’s in-flight movies is strangely comforting, as is the coffee in Seoul early in the morning a day later. With fast internet and quick transfers, Incheon represents a stepping stone, a brief pause to consider my final destination. And to say goodbye to the unrestricted internet, to the wider world.

The first few days on the ground in Shanghai are always a blur. PVGs strangely dark carpets, the inspection line and HSBC ATM. Baggage and the first feel of local weather. The taxi’s new route, on the middle ring road that didn’t exist when I lived here. Flashing traffic cams and billboards. In the dust of evening the outline of Pudong’s towers. And then at last, after hours in the air and in Seoul, after the strange discomfort of sleeping in jeans while seated, the tight familiar streets of Puxi and real Shanghai. Baozi and soda water or gatorade and mi xian in my old neighborhood. A SIM card from the subway station shop and divestiture of bags in a waiting apartment. Eventually a walk to a bar with old friends.

Like everyone, I have fond memories of the places I grew up. Lansing. Vassar. Boston, where I lived in 2000. New York City, on longer and shorter stays of varying life impact. Tokyo. And Shanghai. More than any, Shanghai. At 33 here I am again. Here it seems I more than anywhere return, six times in the past five years. In this city I am content to anchor on, in visits and jobs, long after I’ve moved away. Shanghai again. Forever.

I wonder so often at those who have left and not returned, gone four, five, or ten years. What would they think of the city now? Where would they look to stay, again in this rebuilt metropolis? For me the memories are thick and yet too distant. I wish we could again bowl in that strange place north of Jing’An, that we could again find solace in cheap pints in the Hut.

Two weeks later I am leaving Shanghai again but not forever. In a few hours this trip will blur into others. It will become just one more strange variation, one more series of long evening walks and quiet train rides. As for the people here, we deal and live, trade stories of our time apart and move on. More than anything we become friends and say goodbye. Over and over, to old faces and new, for a decade now.

On this trip I’ve eaten noodles with friends and taxi drivers, wandered Puxi late at night, played frisbee and seen countless factories. I’ve remembered how much Chinese I know and how much I’ve forgotten. And now I will move on in the rush of a modern life, next Monday to Miami. Shanghai will recede and new objectives arise, but the few weeks here will serve as a reminder of how good life can be when cut free from the current of every day and anchored instead in a city of 20 million that I know so well. That we, collectively, have lived in and come home to for so long.

Writing these words I look around. Pudong airport is falling apart a bit, rotting in the concrete way, in the way of dirty air and humidity, of a lack of maintenance. I’ve been here dozens of times, on the top deck of T2, getting coffee in a tucked-away spot with a view. After napping in the taxi for 45 minutes on the ride out. Out till 3, up at 7, 8. Out of the apartment at 9 and in Pudong shortly later. Early, to have time to remember.

Two weeks later the sentences I wrote on arrival perform the same magic as always, the magic that makes me write. Boston is in the news. I am making plans to return to Tokyo. And the last night in Shanghai was spent in a new bar with old friends, folk who have like myself returned again.

The bar was new but the building old, familiar. The last establishment inside those walls was the Hut of this post’s opening. It was convenient in those years, the pub behind a good friend’s apartment and a block or two from mine. Now the two of us meet in Brooklyn and reminisce about its cheap drinks and over-ripe peanuts. On my last night the new name and fancier drinks could not disguise the location. Stories of the past decade came easily to all of us.

From the heat of Miami I try to recall my earlier visits to Shanghai, since leaving in two thousand eight. Being sent to a city in a country not my own for business is an incredible opportunity, something I have always wanted. Being able to stay with friends, being trusted to plan my own travel and produce my own results, those are the perks that make it better than I had imagined, better than I’d experienced before.

And landing in Shanghai may always feel like coming home.

Once with effort

The rafters of the factory are open steel beams that support electrical cords for lighting and duct work for air conditioning. In Juarez the summer’s heat is oppressive, and I admire the size of the ventilation.

In a factory in Jinshan years ago, my dress clothes sticking to me in Shanghai’s miserable July, I worried about the workers spending most of their lives in a huge room cooled only by a half dozen refrigerator-sized units. During quality inspections our group would take turns standing in front of their whirring fans, visitors and managers alike. The sewers made no such moves, their bodies grown used to the weather.

The duct work in Juarez is a sign of care for employees, and an acknowledgment of the city’s position in the high desert. It is windy and cold in the winter and still and hot in the summer. Ventilation is a sign of corporate compassion. This factory’s concrete shell, handed down from company to company for decades, has been modified by each successive inhabitant to cope with the challenge of keeping many hands in motion regardless of season. In one corner of the ceiling, by the offices, colored fabric has been hung, green and blue nylon stretched between beams to create a false roof of bold shades. Years earlier, by the look of the fabric, bright but dusty. Dirt has settled around the holes where the edges are lashed to the rafters. These bold lengths of nylon were the start of a grand project never advanced, too expensive or otherwise unsuccessful.

Didn’t insulate well,” is the answer, when I ask. An idea now abandoned. A Saturday’s work still hanging there, no more and no less.

The feeling of nostalgia, of loss, and of having missed the moment of energy strikes me repeatedly in factories. So many of the places I see are not at their peak, will never again be. Buildings that once were new and well-maintained, filled with workers and a sense of energy, now have dirty floors and piles of discarded machinery and material along the sides. The detritus of daily operational demands so often overwhelms anyone’s ability to plan and to improve.

Sitting in an office above a different factory the sense of time passed is all around me. In one corner there’s a small bar custom-built for this space and used to entertain customers. It is covered with books and samples, and the wall paper on its front is peeling and dusty. In another corner a shirt and tie hang, the sign of a true workaholic, someone who slept at the office and needed a spare for the next day. Neither have been used in months, but hang anyway, a memory of hours no longer required. The memory of a younger man. I wish I’d seen that entertainer, that host. I wish I could see this office used in the way it was built to be.

All around us are reminders of projects done with purpose, accomplished by an effort no longer easy to imagine. In San Francisco the Sutro Baths are one such, ruined by fire and weather on the edge of the Pacific. Now the moss-covered foundation serves as a monument to what people were able to build at the turn of the last century.

In the rock gym hang pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge, or more specifically photos of men walking the clusters of cables that would become the bridge. They stand without safety gear, working high above the mouth of the bay in what must have been an incredibly cold and windy position. Outside the gym’s huge windows the bridge dominates the view, a structure of too large a scope to have been built by individual hands.

Our own houses have these remnants too, fixtures installed, cabinets built, labor invested. On moving out we realize these projects were done in the early days, before we became too busy and too tired, while we still had energy and hope for the new place. Sometimes they represent the work of inhabitants before us whose energies remain unknown. Who built this shelf, we ask, or why did they wall off the Murphy bed, the kitchen door? Likewise the gym’s carefully manufactured rock walls cling to the interior of a space built for the military a hundred years before. The repurposing of old structures built with effort long forgotten is easily visible in the Presidio, and yet continues everywhere.

Indoors at the back of another factory there is a cafe awning where workers were once served food. Long closed it is covered in dust and machinery blocks the entrance. On my visit the cafe is hard to spot. Workers avoid that end of the building, a sad reminder that the business is not what it was and that no one can return it to glory. Ducking through the plastic strips that line the shop floor’s entrance I wonder what this factory sounded like when the cafe was filled at lunch hour, when the dedicated cook served one and all.

This is the way of every life, I think, pulling away in my rental car. We build and hope, we give up, we create, and we abandon. It is the story of growing old, and a reminder that our actions are temporary, our energy finite, and our time brief.

On my next visit to Juarez the colored fabric is gone, and new white panelling reaches half way across the vast space. In my absence someone has restarted the project, has put new energy in to the old building. There is a future here, and room for growth. Here people are not yet abandoning, not yet growing old.

I smile as the owner shows me the new lunch room, built by hand off the back of the main floor from cinder block and concrete. Complete with its own AC and bright colored paint it is a sign to the workers that things are improving, that the future still shines. After so long seeing factories in gradual decline I am excited to be supporting this growth. The owner is loud and cheerful as he leads the tour. We are both happy to invest in these people, this place. We can build something here, we can make this small piece of the world better than before.

We have energy and time.

Accidental meaning

In Omiya in 2001 the billboards soared large above the streets, clogging the skyline on both sides. A random city in Saitama, it satisfied my youthful desire to live in the future of Japan. A decade later one of those signs remains in my mind, its strange language still near at hand.

In every city we read without thinking. A background process of our eyes and brain assimilates any language we can understand, without focus or need. We notice funny license plates on the highway, t-shirts on passers-by; advertising thrives on this, creating whole markets for billboards in video games and products used in TV shows. We absorb until we cannot, until we find ourselves somewhere with no knowledge of the written word. And then we work harder.

Japan was like that, in 2001. Like fresh snow, untracked with meaning. Young and impressionable I wandered open to new in all forms, and was forced to learn from watching people rather than words. Without the context of the written and without maps, bus trips from Warabi to the shopping mall in north western Kawaguchi where I taught once a week were journeys that relied on help from the driver, from watching the passengers and the landscape. In many ways those rides were the first of the lost moments. They were the  first time I would think of the globe and my location and wonder how I had ever come to be there, so far from upstate New York where I’d been born.

In the decade since these moments have become frequent without becoming common. Walking alone over the bridge towards the US border in Juarez at three pm on a dusty Wednesday in November. Driving over the Golden Gate bridge at dawn. Crossing the Yangtze by ferry at eight am on a Monday in September. These moments, to me, are proof of the unpredictable path of life and the scale of our world.

To the value of words, the subconscious emphasis we grant things read, I return to Japan. In these moments of scant knowledge the few words we find and understand stick out stronger. Most Americans in Japan are obsessed with strange English usage. In Omiya the billboard I recall was for a pachinko parlor, happy caucasian women in front of a blurred nature background overlaid with white text. Yes, Go Open! it said. Three words out of a skyline of neon. Here in San Francisco I still say them to myself, at the start of an evening out or as the disc is pulled in an ultimate game. Yes, go, open. I doubt I’ll ever forget these things I never meant to read.

Life is littered with strange collections of words glimpsed unintentionally. The numbered stickers that for years were affixed to the back of the plexiglass in Shanghai taxi cabs. Slow children at play, which followed me throughout college. We do not go searching for them, these mantras, they simply exist. Double fine, a road sign that became the face of a company. Face slapping goes international, just blocks down the street. The price is very low like mud, from a Chinese restaurant about their pork.  Words, adrift in our environment, take on meaning through rarity, through repetition, location, and design. They become part of our memories, another layer of geography tied to our lives.

Places I slept, 2012

San Francisco, CA

Brooklyn, NY

Santa Monica, CA

Shanghai, China

Tokyo, Japan

Kyoto, Japan

Tochigi, Japan

Rochester, NY

Ithaca, NY

Cherry Hill, NJ

Anaheim, CA

Portland, OR

Salt Lake, UT

Lake Havasu, AZ

Forestville, CA

Fort Collins, CO

Billings, MT

Arcata, CA

El Paso, TX

Yangzhou, China

Davis, CA

Los Angeles, CA

Green Bay, WI

Edinburgh, Scotland

Erchless Castle, Scotland

Harrow, London

Chicago, IL

Berkeley, CA

Walden, CO

A very full year. A new country, old friends, weddings, work, and family. Longer lists than 2011, 2010, 2009. Here’s to the new year, a blank page, and friends all over the world.

Also, here’s Seth’s list. We do keep moving.

Cities of accident

Ciduad Juarez is dusty and chill. In the long sunlight of the middle of November I stand in the courtyard to warm myself. Behind a chain link fence topped with razor wire a small canal separates the yard from the street beyond and the houses that line it. The canal is built of cinder block, and the water that runs through it is a trickle winding its way through piles of leaves and rubbish. Off to the right it continues out of sight, running between the road and this strange strip of quiet land, behind factories and hotels. Left it ducks behind the concrete building I have emerged from and continues on to the main road, disappearing beneath it into a culvert.

The break yard has several beat up office chairs, two dusty concrete benches, and the remnants of someone’s lunch, a crumpled wrapper and a can of soda. In the lazy afternoon light it looks deserted for decades rather than hours.

Yangzhou looks like a Chinese city. The generalization is a particular one, born of identical train stations, hotels, party buildings and apartment blocks. The first groups of these towers, built five years ago, have terraces and are six stories high, walk ups with nice gardens now slowly being converted into parking. Row upon row of these, identical, were built all over China before each tenant had an automobile or aspired to one. The ponds were initially stocked with koi, a few of which remain. The leaves on the landscaped shrubs and trees are covered with the dirt that settles the air, coal dust carried for miles. Balconies likewise, which remind me of mine in Shanghai that had to be cleaned weekly to be habitable. The sidewalks that wind beside the buildings in each of these complexes are almost completely parked over with VWs and Audi’s, Buick’s and local brands, mostly black, mostly sedans. This is a Chinese city in two thousand twelve, new towers, new subways, new streets still rising while the old wear fast.

Yangzhou looks familiar after passing Wuxi, Suzhou, Changzhou, Zhenjiang on the train. I am here on a Friday morning, my second trip in a week. Across the Yangtze on a ferry from Zhenjiang, Yangzhou was probably a unique place when I first moved to this country.

These are the cities of accident. They are places I never intended to visit, let alone return to. They have renown spots and local problems, neither of which I will spend much time on. Instead I will visit rooms of concrete where large numbers of people gather to make physical objects for humans they will never meet. It is an odd trade at this level, the view of globalization both immediately present and impossible to understand, far beyond the horizon.

In the late summer the courtyard in Juarez has been spruced up, flowering trees and new chairs. Some space has been cleared beneath the largest tree for the lunch table, which looks both more recently wiped and more regularly used. The air still has the desert’s distinct dryness and the sun lurks overhead, ready to subordinate those out of doors too long. I am happy to see the changes, the growth that is born of daily efforts to improve rather than sudden wealth and dictated construction.

I wonder what Yangzhou will look like when I see it next. I do not know when that will be.  No matter the date there will not, I suspect, have been a change as great as that from bicycle to car, of a million people suddenly learning to drive. As far as China goes my time there was perfect, coincided with the wave. All else is bonus, extra time on set.

The ferry was a gift today, I tell myself in the mirror of the G train back to Shanghai. Until this week I had never been on a boat on the Yangtze. I had never been on a working boat in China, nor had it been on my list.

Sometimes the road, rather than the destination, is the day’s gift. Flowers in the Juarez break yard, road crews building by hand in Yangzhou. These are cities I am lucky to see, to know, and to watch change, even if only small patches in brief moments of time alone.

Trucks

We bounce up the gravel road, some miles from where it leaves the pavement behind. Before the ride is out something will puncture the right front tire on this American-made Ford F150. We will notice it later in the evening, as it settles slowly to earth after our return home. For now though the vehicle is big and the ride as comfortable as can be.

Better than in the old truck,” says our host. It is a statement I cannot vouch for, but tolerable, given the track.

The world, this far from human habitat, is stunning and full of life. On the ride in we see little save the landscape, the barren fields already cut, the dusty road long without rain. It is Montana, the shrubbery low and the trees hidden in valleys. Our destination is a ranch house tucked, in the style of Rivendell, into an invisible cavity in the rolling hills. Surrounded by trees and filled with family and cats it is a secret sanctuary amid the brown of felled hay and wheat.

On the way home in the dark the same path has come alive. After the sun set the cats disappeared into the night, only to be roused by our headlights as we bounce out the driveway. Young and gray the kittens skitter across in front of our paths, and we all warn the driver, instinctively. They are too precious to risk, and he is well aware.

In the dark the animals of the wilderness grow bold, traveling with comfort along the nice track left by humans through this wilderness. We see one skunk, thankfully quiet, and a pair of porcupines, separate and strange in the darkness. They are creatures whose shapes surprise me, and it falls to others to guess correctly what the shadow are before the headlights find them. A group of deer bound across the road in front of us, young and skittish they proceed away with uncertain bounds. Last there is an unidentified creature, a dark shape of dog or wolf or coyote but with long tail, with strange motion. We stop and turn the car towards it, but the motion is lost in the weeds and we find nothing, nosing the Ford up into the dirt. Again I am impressed by the vehicle, by the ability to nose up and into the rocks. This detour may cost us a tire, but it is a demonstration of the value of size, of wheelbase and clearance. The Fit, much loved and well-traveled, would not fare well on these roads.

And so it is we return to Billings, to the small house that is our house for a few days of weddings, introductions, and celebrations. Good times and back yards, sunshine, stereos, pickups meant for four, and a landscape suitable.

Afloat

Stepping off the plane the weather is calm as always, by the beach and exceedingly early. I woke even earlier, to fog and a chill wind, my car covered with tiny droplets. Waiting for friends by the curb the clear skies and lack of humidity feel wonderful, a gentle weather that to me is Los Angeles.

Stepping out of the car some four hours later the heat assaults. Within seconds I begin to sweat and my companions make sounds of awe at the change. The amazement is not purely at the temperature, but at how great a change four hours could bring. Distance is a tricky thing, surprising when encountered suddenly. Our brains, I think, evolved to walk, to travel slowly through such shifts as I saw that morning. From fog, wind, and persistent damp to the relaxed 70° F of Southern California, to the open desert, the barren rock filled with heat accepted and re-radiated. Shorts, I think, and sandals. Both are in my shoulder bag, carried on to my morning flight in anticipation. They were too much to ask my brain at four am, waking chilly in the 52° F of San Francisco. We were born to acclimate gradually, to walk over a mountain range and see the sea rather than to land suddenly in the East Coast’s stifling humidity after a restless night’s sleep seated in an air conditioned tube of metal.

My companions are likewise overwhelmed, and we spend the afternoon, the two days following, alternating between AC and water. This seems to be how lives are lived in Arizona, as most vehicles tow boats and the lake, the Wal*Mart, are filled in the afternoon. Our home for the weekend, a sixty foot behemoth, offers us both air conditioning and water with ease if not grace. Trying to start the grill for an early dinner my friend is quickly drenched in his own sweat, his wool Dodgers cap a burden in its authenticity. Fire, while necessary for cooking beef, is not something to linger near when the ambient temperature ticks over 115° F.

For three days this lake is our playground, this boat our castle. Filled with food and friends from across the country, it is all we need. Together we float and swim. We learn, from each other and the world, how to drive large vehicles and leap from cliffs. We work together to tie up on beaches and dive through inner tubes. As the sky cools we are alone on the shore, and sit high on the boat watching the sun. It sets behind the mountains, splashing the lake with pinks and oranges as speedboats rip past heading home. Tied up on a small island we linger on the top deck, no longer forced into the AC or water. Our topics grow serious, brains finally cool enough to process. Business school and marriage, families, jobs and houses. Later, in the dark, we set off fireworks, spin fire, and tell stories. We speak of experiences we will never have again, of first encounters and the strange adventures that have brought us here, across miles and years. It is a weekend to celebrate our friend, his growth and a new phase we know he’s ready for. That we are ready for.

On our last morning, all of us slowly waking to the sun, I walk across our small island and swim to the shore. The cliffs, so inviting the day before, look wonderful in the fresh light. With a couple other early risers I climb, pause for the view, and jump.

Airborne for a full second not a single thought goes through my head. Below, having hit the deep cold water and pulled my way back up, I feel complete. My muscles and brain are weary, and awake. Finally, after hundreds of miles and hours of travel, I have removed myself from the world. Alone with this small circle of friends, on this small circle of water, there is nowhere more to go, nowhere else to be.

At least until after breakfast.

Homes belonging

In a span of weeks I am in a variety of homes belonging to good friends rather than landlords, occupied by owners rather than tenants. It is an exhausting tour of small neighborhoods and cities I may one day inhabit. Returned at last to our apartment north of the park in San Francisco I think mostly of the difference between here and all of those homes.

In Santa Monica to begin I have a spare key, a room and seclusion from the week day bustle. From this cool comfort I work, computer on my lap, and give thanks for the privacy, the lack of a commute. Having a home in a city not one’s own is a key step for this would-be global wanderer. Having one well situated is an even greater boon, with coffee near at hand and the airport an affordable taxi. In Santa Monica when my hosts come home I close the laptop and prepare for dinner. My Haro, pulled from the rafters of their garage, needs air and dusting, and then we are off.  For both my belongings and my body their home is a quiet spot safe from all the city, traffic, and heat.

In Portland on a Monday the house sits on a corner lot, the mulch newly laid. Gorgeous in the long days of June it is a work in progress. The bathroom sink, I am told upon entering, does not work. The kitchen sink does, and we share it each morning in between teeth brushing and work. The hole in the wall between closet and kitchen is a visual problem my friend, an architect, assures me, not a usability one. I concur, and sleep well. Bus lines are close at hand, as is a coffee shop to work from. A spare bike caries me to dinner with a huge group of friends from China. Lingering downstairs in the evening he points out planned points of improvement, the next place to repair.

In New Jersey after a long drive the houses are also under construction. One has an addition growing beside it, about to break through, and in one the downstairs is in various stages of spackle, flooring, and paint.

Most of the electricity is done,” I’m told.

After this room is painted it’s basically finished.”

Tomorrow I’ll knock through the wall here for the duct work.”

These are the projects of my peers, the weekends and money sinks of couples already married, about to be, still tentative. We sit over dinner and discuss mortgages, we sit over wine and plan weddings, we bicycle to beers and talk furniture styles, long term commitments.

After this string of visits I fly home to my Fit and my kitten, to my apartment, ultimate team, and companion. In so many ways the two of us are part of the decisions of our age. We share solutions and discuss options with these friends and others, in Portland, in Montana, in St. Louis and New York.

Yet in this sphere of property, of homes belonging to those under forty we remain visitors, grateful for the spare bedrooms, bicycle options, and permanent addresses. As yet untethered by projects of such scope we elope on weekends to the Russian River, for weeks to Japan. We are settled and yet not fixed, comfortable but not permanent, and the ownership of property remains at a distance, with no clear path between.

Forgetting

You know him, but you probably don’t remember his mom, she was an…” This is how stories begin in my parent’s home. I do not. It has been decades since her son and I shared a playground in middle school.

Decades.

The children we once knew have grown, moved, married, and are contemplating children. Some parents, like mine, remain in old circles and wonder at our forgetfulness.

The loss is not intentional. Rather too great is the world, too many are the people. We do not mean to surrender these memories of childhood, they are forced from us by the onslaught of days. To manage we devote our meager resources to our current locations, to our new homes. On the East Coast for a few days of stories and family, I learn of another method, long practiced, for defeating the limits of memory.

My father’s parents drive me south to Philadelphia. We have scant trips like this together and many things to share, tales of those gone and those unable to join us. We alternate between the two as the miles pass. Sometimes we speak of our future desires, my own hopes to visit Scotland this fall among them.

It’s really beautiful out at the north edge of Scotland,” says my grandfather, I forget the name of the town, I’d have to look at my notes. Anyway, you ride along…”

In an astonishing moment an entire world previously unknown appears to me, revealed after decades. The same decades that have hidden my childhood companions suddenly contain copious detail, personal history, the travel of those with no limits on time.

Notes?” I ask, thinking of my poor scribbled collection of memories from earlier travels, from years abroad.

From everywhere we’ve ever been,” he says.

Every night when we get back to the hotel,” adds my grandmother, he writes while I read my book.” With that my own urge to organize and record no longer seems so strange. The first image I see is of our cruise in two thousand six, me writing in a lounge high on the ship late in the evenings, others having retired to their cabins. I imagine him sitting at a table, looking out over the Mediterranean, writing.

A day later I have copies of his notes from three weeks spent in Scotland in nineteen ninety four and can add format and handwriting to my imagined evenings. The notes are in a kind of short hand, and the hours driving together lend me the sound of his voice as I read them, which I do for much of my plane flight home.

9/10 Saturday Stayed — Toured Hadrian’s Wall — Housesteads Roman Ft. (high on ridge, impressive remains & views, walked wall — really windy)

Almost twenty years ago. As with so many written things I picture a book of these travel diaries, with appendixes that list the miles traveled per day, that list the names of each hotel, as they are recorded on the paper in front of me. I see a book of things forgotten and yet not lost.

We have a finite memory. Most things slide in and out. Relationships, good times with old friends, one-time travels to distant lands, even these drift from our fingertips though we do not mean to let them. What then of the details of Japan, of Shanghai, of our travels, houses, kitten? On the bus home from the airport I think of this site, of my attempts to record time and place, and vow to continue. Looking down again at his notes as I sit in the fog of San Francisco I am amazed at the details so long forgotten and so quickly returned to hand.

Be not lost

In June friends arrive in San Francisco. By car, from Colorado via new Orleans, via California, via Houston. Late in the evening we joke that we are growing older in years and traveling in circles. Like everyone.

Many things have changed since our last cohabitation. We live in San Francisco, for one. We have jobs, cars, and a kitten. The later of which rampages around the living room, doing small flips. Our guest is thankfully without allergies and with patience, for Mr. Squish uses small paws to the face to test new accomplices. She passes his four am challenges and we spend days wandering, exploring this city again. San Francisco is gracious. May’s gorgeous weather lingers into June. The week is seventy degrees and filled with sunshine. Eighty. Eighty five. We bask, we dance, and we celebrate the company of those without schedules. We cook and discuss fish. It is a marvelous week of knowing a place well enough to be a guide and yet not well enough to be bored doing so. I wonder if this summer will be the peak of this city. Is.

And we amble home through the park in the fog which finally, long past midnight, creeps in.

In June a friend asks for guidance on the trains of Japan. Our recent adventures allow the specifics to come easily to mind. Deeper, though, lies the layer of comfort that comes from living there. I wonder how to impart this specific kind of familiarity with locations, with lines and names. Born of taking the Saikyo line home every day for two years, of walking dozens of times between Shibuya and Harajuku, of bicycling to Omiya in the dark, it is difficult to explain. The trains in from Narita, the NEX or Keikyu, retain the memories of old journeys home, jet lagged upon return from America, from Italy. Without these they would be meaningless words leading to places unknown.

The details do fade. Without the recent trip I would have known few restaurants from a decade ago. Without our long evening walks in February from this new apartment I would not know so many restaurants in San Francisco, in the Richmond district. Yet I am not lost here in San Francisco. I was not lost in Tokyo this spring.

With this realization, and the challenge of helping friends discover places I have been, I remember my own goal from years and countries back: to keep moving until I am comfortable arriving anywhere.

To keep exploring until I am not lost.

Perfect city

In the fog Clement is welcoming. On Sunday morning the Blue Danube is full. On the couch a scruffy man in a well-worn Giants hoodie is slouched, deep in a book-sale copy of Notes from the Underground. The couples chattering at tables on either side do not disturb his focus. Coffee in hand I push the door open, heading back out into the mist. An old chinese woman reaches to catch it’s swing. On her hand cart she has boxes of bananas, apples, and other buried things I can not see. Perfect, I think, holding the door for her. This is the kind of city I want to live in, where coffee shops are filled with sports fans reading Dostoyevsky and fresh fruit is delivered by hand.

As I head downtown on Geary early in the morning, I think about this city I love, and the city I want. Late the night before we’d sat up in the dark, four of us, discussing places to live, in the future. Friends who’d first met in Shanghai, we’ve spent time on each other’s rooftops in Hong Kong, lived separately and together in Taiwan and Japan, and are happiest imagining. Perhaps because we are surprised to suddenly find ourselves residents of Los Angeles and San Francisco. Still we are curious, on the move, and consider Portland, Berkeley, and Seattle as immediate American alternatives. Housing, jobs, and the inevitable hope for cultural comfort are all mentioned as criteria. Transportation, I add, thinking of my electric scooter, of Tokyo’s trains.

Downtown the fog lingers even in SoMa and I think about those criteria again, parking on Minna. 6th and Natoma is a block filled with crack addicts and homeless people, artists and those just passing through. On Sunday morning it reeks of human excrement and a spilled bag of Cheetos. It is an interesting intersection to spend time on, which I do thanks to the Boxcar theater. It is not exactly what I meant when I said, just ten minutes earlier, that San Francisco was the kind of city I wanted.

The city I imagine is dense enough to be walkable, like SoMa and much of San Francisco. Like Shanghai, where even the furthest corners of downtown Puxi are within reach on foot, if need be. In the evenings of my imagined city, long after house lights have begun to go out, after the business districts have emptied and the restaurants closed, we are able to wander home without fear in less than an hour. This implies a great density of population or a small town, implies a level of public safety, implies housing of an affordable nature in the city center. It implies nightlife, businesses, and housing constructed within sight of each other. Hong Kong has much of it, and Shanghai. San Francisco, in parts, and New York, though more thinly spread. Ithaca has this, or much of it. Why not then the small town, I wonder, what is the fascination with the megalopolii of Asia?

The answer comes instantly to a child of upstate New York. This city of fantasy has jobs to attract us, we migrants of urban desire. It has companies that value youth, or the approximation of it as we age. As cities go it is no stickler for ties. The streets of my imaginary home are narrow and highly used, filled with electric bicycles and pedestrians. Trees and curved pathways that facilitate motion rather than constant stop signs weave between the skyscrapers of the downtown. Shops and offices fill the lower floors of buildings that open to the air and to the city, that approach the pathways rather than being set back from passers by.

I return to the first aspect I’d imagined. In the evening the streets are still busy. As the lights come on people return home, busses and subways empty, and restaurants fill. In each neighborhood different scents sit in the air, and grocery stores become hubs of pre-dinner planning.

Couples whisk by on silent scooters, their jokes covered by quickly fading laughter. Runners jog past, working off the pressures of the day solo or in pairs. As the air cools and the sky slides through blues towards black birds rustle in the trees and cats, having spent the day out on the city’s grassy patches, sneak homewards in search of food.

Above the streets the office towers slowly go dark, first single rooms and then whole floors. At their base food carts ply their trade, and vegetable stalls linger for those last customers. Arms laden the well-dressed workforce heads into the subway or down the block, the quick commute of the urban household.

In my dream house, much like the real one, the wood is soft and light good. Letting the cat back in I put out the milk bottles and mail for tomorrow’s rounds, glad again that the delivery man lives on my block and shares my coffee shop, with its book-lined walls and open air grill.

The city of my dreams exists, in places, in parts. It can be found on distant islands and countries whose borders do not touch my own. On foggy mornings and wind-swept afternoons I see it here, in San Francisco, waiting for me when I am half asleep. The question of this place, of where to find our own desires, is not of how long to look or far to travel. It is of how much to invest, how deep to sink our roots, and how much to try and build.

Wild country

In the mountains of Tochigi the children bound up the hill through the trees to meet us. In the forrest trunks grow thick together. Only a hundred meters in the houses and the valley are utterly forgotten. Another hundred and we’d be adventuring in the dark.

Wild boars live here, says our host, and shows us a skull he discovered on a walk as proof. Later he points out more recent evidence of their rooting in the potatoes. Wild boars look larger and fiercer than the children I say.

Oh there are bears too, we’ve got it all,” my old roommate replies with a grin. In this sense they do. They have creatures, cats that wander off to neighbors for months at a time. They have a garden, and land enough for future crops. Wood, cut by the government in preparation for a dam comes free to the door for their stove and winter heat. Water, running down the hill, fills the toilet without need for municipal plumbing. And the birds visit at all hours, singing with the morning’s light. Far from the cities and the hustle of Tokyo, their hillside seems a different world, an older Japan. And it is.

The farmhouse they inhabit is a hundred years old. Made of wood and built to be opened on all sides to the air, its central pillar is based on a round boulder rather than driven into the earth. This allows the structure a bit of room to move with the earth when it shakes. Age of the building alone proves the idea’s merit, the earthquakes coming stronger and more regularly of late. In two thousand eleven the grave stones up the hill fell but the house barely shuddered. The floor, bathroom and soon kitchen all will have been replaced, but the pillars, walls, and roof show no sign of letting go.

Northwest of Tokyo Tochigi is the middle of Japan, geographically. Standing in the hills it feels like the center, feels as though we’ve come deep into the country, far from all exposed edges. Above the trees, the rolling hills, hot springs and old shrines that dot them, the skies are a pure blue. More than anything it feels like a good place to raise children, to watch them running out in the darkening evening with no one to notice.

Save, perhaps, the boars.

Glimpses of Shanghai

When the day is done

I meet a friend in front of Jing’an temple. Looking around at the intersection I recognize no buildings save the one behind me that names this intersection, ancient and partially re-built in concrete decades before. Towers of glass and neon spring out of corners that once held parks, that once held nothing. My friend finds me looking lost in one of the city’s most familiar places. I hold tight to the back of his scooter as we speed down Nanjing Lu, dodging police and taxis with equal caution.

And I lay me down

I am sick in the afternoon at the edge of a grass field, almost to the river, almost to the sea. A man on a bicycle outside the fence who is watching the soccer game behind me pretends not to notice my squatting form. I appreciate the gesture. My stomach turns. On the way home I am sick on the Nanbei Gaojia, out the taxi window in the sun. Traffic, moving at a brisk walk, politely does not crowd our cab, and I am grateful. Home again on a friend’s borrowed couch I hunker down with Gatorade and warm blankets. A day goes by as I heal.

I think about the day we had

I visit new shopping complexes with old friends, talking of change and plans. I have one constant thought, that we have grown up from the youth who first learned this city’s streets. The streets too have matured, and this old block now recreates a Shanghai that once was and yet has never been. Microbreweries occupy lane houses recreated to a degree Disney would be proud of. In my first days back I hear tales of rental car adventures and clear explanations of domestic regulations on electric engines. One did not exist eight years ago and the other was obtuse, unintelligible. Deep local knowledge, smart phones, and an ever-improving sense of business characterize all my meetings. We are no longer English teachers and Shanghai is no longer the edge of the world. Friends who once saved for bicycles have offices and employees, worry about adoption rates and customer growth metrics. Vacations are no longer home for Christmas with parent’s help but to Hokkaido, to Cambodia. Indonesia, I hear twice in the same week, is the new wild west.

After all, I’m married to the wandering star

Out late

In the evening Fillmore is a strange conduit. From Lower Haight it runs downhill to the McDonalds on Golden Gate in all senses. In the drive-through the rims are more important than the car, and a former self recognizes the mood. In Poughkeepsie in the year two thousand we’d walk to a drive-through like this. Open all hours, unlike the interior, it served fifty nine cent cheeseburgers on Tuesdays. In the dark we’d surprise the staff, catch them chatting to each other. Without headlights we were invisible, though rarely quiet.

Twelve cheeseburgers,” we’d request, having pushed the button and counted our change. Some days twenty five.

In San Francisco at two am I wonder what the staff of this McDonalds would say to a walk-up drive-through customer. And I wonder how much cheeseburgers cost on Tuesdays.

Fillmore heads up again, into a neighborhood of concert halls and Karaoke boxes, of Asian chains and bars I’ve never heard of anyone going to. Jazz and hip hop alternate, and on the corner women in shiny dresses complain about their heels to men in suits. Other groups of women complain about men to their friends in similarly spiked shoes. The men wait for cars, or wait in their cars, stereos adding to the neighborhood’s dull background throb. To the right a Panda Express sign winks out, the last workers shutting down.

Up still farther Fillmore runs into Geary, destroying any pretense of the small livable avenue. On the corners sit The Fillmore, famed venue to moderate stars of a likable nature. Ani will be back later this year the posters tell me. I will be in Shanghai. Opposite an establishment called the Boom Boom Room sounds correctly named. This is the end of my walk, this is where the 38 stops on its way out of downtown towards my foggy neighborhood.

Here at the top a hill and of Fillmore’s rise, just west of Geary’s peak, we wait for the bus and watch women doing likewise try to avoid the bus stop’s permanent tenants. Each time here I wonder about the Boom Boom Room, which doesn’t seem unappealing. At two am the club may perhaps have worn out the evening’s excitement, covered it up with cheap vodka, and pushed it out with continuous beats. I ponder this and watch silently, content to let the dapper post-club crew make large of their status as the most appealing conversation in the vicinity. A woman in heels is grateful for their attention. Behind her the man who’d been extolling his history with the piano shoves off, slightly too hard, from the bus stop’s shelter and staggers into the wall. From its exterior decoration the Boom Boom Room’s brick is accustom to this treatment.

On the bus out I am surrounded with chatter and games, the joy of the evening made mobile in small groups of friends. I hear stories of skateboards and girls, I hear stories of boys and first dates. The city is alive on late night busses, everyone slowly separating out into the neighborhoods of quiet housing, separating at the end of the evening.

This, I think, my companion asleep on my shoulder, is why we live in a city, why we love walking home late at night. Because we aren’t alone, and our stories may not be the best.

Living in public

A long time ago I snuck out of bed late at night, awoken by a man hammering on his toilet. Climbing the stairs, my bare feet soon covered with concrete dust, I found him excavating in the new hours of the morning. Hidden in shadows and unmoving, he did not see me. After he returned inside, toilet firmly shoved against the wall, I crept back down and returned to bed. The image of that old man’s back strained in a curve beneath the thin undershirt he wore as he tugged the toilet from his apartment in the dead of night has never left me.

Living in cities we are close to each other. In Tokyo men pushed us on to trains and we riders willingly subjected ourselves to a closeness no American city, no Chinese railway, really knows. The last Saikyo line out of Shinjuku on a Saturday night remains the closest I have ever been to several hundred other people. Mosh pits of my earlier years share so little with the orderly sacrifice of intoxicated and exhausted city dwellers desperate for a lift to the suburbs.

Bouncing home on the 38 down Geary last week the bus smelled mostly of pee. Sometimes we are too close to one another. Leaving the theater two men are arguing over a woman who is wisely nowhere in sight. They attempt physical harm but are well past the point in the evening of injuring anyone save themselves. They may be well past the point in their lives.

We live densely, the ratio of person to thing higher than it perhaps ought to be. This is the miracle of cities, what makes them such fountains of energy when the weather is good. There are so many people in Shanghai that if everyone set off fireworks on one day the city would be ablaze with light, louder than TV war zones and more covered with smoke. On Chinese New Year we did, and the burning banging popping craze overwhelmed the landscape for three days. Standing in the middle of the street watching red paper flutter down in smoke so dense it obscured the skyscrapers surrounding me I reveled in it. This, I thought, is why we are here, living so close together, enduring each other’s company. So that when the time comes to celebrate, we are never alone.

In the Richmond our apartment faces the street. After years of quiet in Colorado and the Sunset we are surprised to again be part of the city. The police sirens doppler past us, waves washing over our music. At two drunks wandering home from the bar curse loudly outside our windows at people we do not know. At mid day the robotic announcements of the outbound 38 bus trickle in, a reminder of the paths outside these walls. A boy skateboards past, his hard wheels sending each break of pavement up to our ears, a morse code of our new block’s sidewalks. Hearing his success I wear my Heelys to the new coffee shop.

We are, then, back. Members of a tribe found packed together in boxes of wood and concrete, able to share each other’s lives, for better or worse, each morning and much of each night.

They know your name

After cleaning our old place we sit with our backs against the wall of our local bar, tacos on order and Tecates in hand. It won’t be our last trip here, the Taco Shop will remain just across the park, but it won’t be our closest option late at night, after ultimate or hard days. We won’t wander down at 5 on Fridays any more for happy hour, or watch games from the back tables on Saturday afternoons. The bar staff, who know our faces if not our names, are unaware of the reason for our strange faces. They smile when we sit down and treat us well, locals who live around the corner and come in often, never when the place is packed. This is what happens when we move. As a basketball game unwinds on the TV behind the bar I remember the early times, saying goodbye to places I once knew. Places I once was known.

For that boy the differences at first felt so small. Of course no one knew his name, in those new towns. At the laundromat he watched people for hours, sitting cross legged on top of a washing machine. In nineteen ninety eight Portsmouth didn’t feel that different from Ithaca. He would get a bagel in the morning, fresh off the boat in, and walk to the laundromat. His one day ashore would be spent reading, thinking, cleaning, and talking to almost no one.

Four years later and on a day off again he would walk out of the Ebisu train station in the rain. He stopped for coffee in a shop with an English menu. Ebisu is a quiet part of Tokyo, and after coffee he would head down small streets towards the used foreign book store. Mostly English, he perused for hours until it was time to take the train home to the suburbs of Saitama. He did buy books, but that was not why he loved this store. He loved it because the staff streamed British radio, Channel 4. Standing in the tiny aisles of this shop in Tokyo he listened to traffic reports of a place he had never been. Hearing of traffic conditions and the evening weather in England he no longer felt alone in the world. The foreign feeling that so surrounded him on those week day afternoons when all of Tokyo was at work and he, with no language, was free, faded for a bit. There are so many parts of the globe, said the radio, where we are out of place, where things feel like home but are strange.

In between these two moments he lived in Maryland and Boston, Pougkeepsie and New York. He would live in Tokyo without language for another year and then Shanghai with only fragments. In each of these places he was familiar few times. In each city he started over, found a coffee shop, a laundromat, a bagel place, a bar to frequent. And in each city, with time, the staff of some establishments remembered his face, his drink. They noted his odd habit of taking a corner table and pulling out a notebook, of reading the Economist over twelve kuai worth of dumplings and twelve kuai worth of beer. They saw him sleeping over his coffee late in the afternoon instead of eating lunch at noon with the crowd. Even less frequently they knew his name, and he theirs. Knew that he would, when asked, tell stories and bring friends, recommend dishes or specific seats.

In these quiet exchanges he built something and left it behind again with each move.

And after each new beginning he woke early on a Saturday and went looking for a coffee shop in which to write.

In the Richmond in twenty twelve I begin with Japonica, on California and 17th. Just to see, just to try. Maybe in a few weeks the owner and I will know each other by sight, if not by name. Maybe a few weeks after that I will be a regular again.

Habitats

I’m excited,” she says. We need change.” I agree, nodding as we look around at Irving wrapped in fog on a Tuesday night.

Learning a new neighborhood will be good for us,” I add.

Keep us interesting,” She says.

We both know what we mean. Too long in any one place and we become predictable. We begin to contemplate larger purchases and more stable travel patterns. We cease to learn with the voracious appetite of those who are confused by everything around them. And we grow complacent, headphones in as we walk to our favorite store rather than using all our senses to decide which shop to visit.

I’m tired of moving,” says a friend in Portland. As he’s just purchased a house, I think it’s a good position for him to take, and say nothing.

The first challenge with them,” says a friend in New York referring to mutual friends, is to figure out how the space was meant to be used.” In their apartment the bedroom is the living room, the mudroom has become the bedroom and so on, new visitors instantly disoriented by the abundance of empty space.

On the corner of Irving in San Francisco we discuss that.

What if we swap the bedroom and living room?” I ask. Or a futon that we fold up into the closet each morning?” I miss the ritual from my two years in Japan.

Instead we hide the fridge in a nook by the back door and resolve to buy less furniture, to hold off until accustomed to the space. I know the first challenges will not be large objects. They will be where to put cleats and bicycles, where to store the slack line and where to put the cat litter.

In the week of moving we go back and forth between nostalgia and excitement. I remember why most people aim to finish in a single day, so exhausted they can not give thought to loss or gain. Instead we wander both neighborhoods, eating in old favorites and entering new ones to look around and then leave.  We will be back, I tell the corner grocer, silently. We will come here often, I say to the small movie theater scant blocks from the new apartment.

I can not know if these promises are true. Our patterns will not become clear until we have spent hours at work and come home exhausted. Until we wake up late on a Saturday and desire bagels. Until we ride our bikes down each and every street, searching out treasures and listening to the wind.

As we walk the last block home, to our old home, to our soon to be not home, I look up at the fog whirling past the rooftops and across the moon.

Let’s live a little more like we want to be alive,” I say. She grins and we duck inside, to take everything off the walls and put the books in a bin.

Each bit of change starts from taking something old apart, each habit comes from exploration.

Sunset farewell

To each phase there comes an ending. So often these are clearly marked, irrevocable. The job ends, the visa expires.

In my memory a man of twenty six carries his one box of possessions to his scooter and heads off into the Shanghai traffic alone. From that moment forward he no longer shared a two floor apartment in a concrete building painted green. Riding along Jian Guo Lu he was silent, within and without. Carefully balancing the box and the scooter’s throttle, he drove west with only the quiet whir of the electric motor. His mind, so long divided, was almost empty with the resolution.

The first time China ended with a plane ticket, the apartment packed, some things shipped and many more abandoned. The boy, twenty four, left for Thailand and the States with no intention of returning to the land of dumplings and scooters.

College ended with a bang, one day of pomp and celebration and then the scattering, to cars and new adventures. Or to old haunts and a strange sense of solitude even among old friends.

The second time college ended with a long drive, all belongings again packed or given over. Two now, they gave bicycles to friends, chairs to neighbors, drove furniture back to the ancestral home up north. With one last wave they set out for Big Bend, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and a definitive end to Houston.

In twenty eleven nothing ended. Jobs, houses and family stayed much the same. Vacations were taken, marriages begun, and personal growth, always debatable, seemed possible. New friends were made, and new skills learned in the quiet hours. Strange beds too were slept in, more than usual but not too far afield.

Enough then. For too long stability becomes a crutch, becomes a habit that weighs down rather than an enabler of curiosity that sets free. We are comfortable here, in the Sunset, in San Francisco, in our smallest ways.

And that is why the time has come to go. With small steps first we will venture forth, to the Richmond and new housing. Our aims are larger and our vision not yet clear, but the path is calling. Over hill and ocean once again we will away.

If not just yet this morning.

Places I slept, 2011

San Francisco, CA

San Antonio, TX

Santa Monica, CA

San Diego, CA

Washington, D.C.

Salt Lake, UT

Medford, OR

Arcata, CA

Cherry Hill, NJ

Ithaca, NY

Queens, NY

Brooklyn, NY

El Paso, TX

Ciudad Juarez, Mexico

Poughkeepsie, NY

Shanghai, China

Hangzhou, China

Lake Shasta, CA

Moss Beach, CA

Santa Barbara, CA

Chicago, IL

Santa Cruz, CA

Manhattan, NY

Charlotte, NC

Timber Cove, CA

A lot of local adventures, thanks to the Fit, a new country, and many repeats. Here’s to more new places next year.

The setting sun

From the rooftop we can see the edge of the continent. In the last light of Sunday it looks appropriately epic. We are quiet in the face of majesty, at least initially. I remember standing with friends on the rim of the Grand Canyon one morning in the year two thousand, all four of us silently willing our minds to process what our eyes were taking in. The task remains daunting even in my memory a decade later.

Few events require that kind of silence, the re-routing of all brain power from chatter and output to absorption of spectacle. The sunset this evening was that kind of thing, pink and gold and dusty rose and purple filling the sky and reflecting off of all the glass of the city’s windows behind us, up and down its hills, in between trees and large structures. The shifting clouds led the light inland and gave it the rippling texture of the wind.

I am obsessed with satellite imagery of our planet, of the surprising intricacies and overwhelming scale of this globe.  Photos, events, descriptions in books lead me inevitably to the true magic of our generation, the unstated masterpiece of our global connectivity thus far: the easily available view of our planet. No longer is knowledge of the world a challenge to obtain, no longer is a sense of geography the province of those who spend days outdoors or a life on the road. The world is a thing to be seen and the tools to do so can fit in our pockets, can take over our walls.

I wait eagerly for a multi-touch display the size of a Minority Report screen not to wave away dialogue boxes on, but to view the Maldives from a thousand meters up, to observe the east coast of the United States, where I grew up, from the spartan furnishings of whatever tiny Asian apartment I then inhabit.

Watching the sunset this evening, though, my desires are quieted and the vast list of adventures to plan, tickets to purchase, and accommodations to discover slide out of my brain along with all thoughts of technology. I do not even remember the camera, that falls to my companion, who hustles down the stairs and returns with image capturing equipment. Instead I turn my head from ocean to hills and stare. The light fades earlier these days, and is no less impressive for the arbitrary change in hour.

The year is coming to an end, surprisingly. It feels as though it just began, twenty eleven with its frantic pace. The colors that fill the sky tonight promise, like an afterthought on a gorgeous day, that all is not yet done.  Brief though are the remaining pauses where the eyes can overwhelm the brain’s thoughts of work and obligation.

Our minds finally still then, here in the last of the week’s light, we stand on a rooftop in San Francisco, gaze towards the ocean and feel the wind.

Readily available cures

In my Mexican hotel room Lost in Translation plays, a mirror for those adrift. I am again feverish in a country not my own and so relish the sounds of Japan, the clean linen, the Gatorade and air conditioning. Perhaps it was the food, or perhaps pure exhaustion from a weekend spent running in the sun at Stanford and several extremely long days on my feet.

On screen Bill Murray smiles awkwardly. I shiver. In this box of manufactured air I am secure, and I heal. Tomorrow I will rise early and step again into the heat that waits outside my door, in the very hallway. Tonight, like those lost souls in Tokyo on TV, I ignore Juarez. Instead I try to find some space to breathe, and to think of how fix the problems I am here to see. How to do the right thing, once I have discovered it.

I also remember.

In the Summit, an expensive Shanghai apartment complex behind The Center, a glass tower on Huashan Lu then but a few years old, I remember a man of thirty. He lay for a day and a half in bed. He shivered and shook with some unknown disease contracted in the manufacturing sprawl outside Shaoxing. He cured it the way he was accustomed to in China, with Advil, Gatorade, and thick covers. The Saturday I remember was his one day off out of three weeks in country, and he saw nothing outside of his friend’s apartment, the guest bedroom.

Out the window in Juarez a pool glows in the evening, abandoned for the moment by hotel guests. A gym next to it features men working off business lunches by pounding their knees on an endless rubber path. I have energy for neither sit-ups nor discontent.

I am in a country without holding any of its currency. The idea of this is bemusing and inconvenient as the vending machines on the floor below might otherwise offer sustenance. I toss and turn, occupied by the soreness of sickness. Somehow all of these illnesses, all of these aching hours alone in strange countries, blur together in feverish dreams.

On an airplane across the Pacific, I remember a man age twenty eight.  He had a bulkhead seat, but did not appreciate the space. Neither blanket nor hoodie could stop the chills and the aches of the illness he had contracted in Houston and incubated on the flight to LA. On reaching home in Shanghai he would remain housebound for a week. He would learn of his roommate’s soup-making skills and see little save the sallow face in his own mirror.

At thirty two, I leave Juarez for Phoenix with the illness still inside me. Shivering in the Phoenix airport as the air conditioning floods down, almost unable to stand, I take comfort in having still never been as ill as on that flight to Shanghai.

On the flight home to San Francisco, finally free, finished with the week in the Juarez Holiday Inn Express, I count up those other lost days, ill in countries not my own. So often I have been powerless save for the cures I knew: Advil brought with me, Gatorade purchased for scant dollars, and covers of a bed briefly borrowed.

I am glad once again to be going home to a house that is not empty. Going home to someone who will aid me in ways, alone and with so little language, I have never managed to improve.

Casual deletion

Arriving at PVG towards the end of August I am immediately covered in sweat. The merino hoodie that sheltered me high above the Pacific has no use in this city of clouds and dust. Shanghai welcomes me with the need for a shower, with a new banking fee, and with an entire new ring road from airport to city.

It seems I start every visit the same way, exclaiming that Shanghai has changed. Why do I not feel this way landing at JFK, or at HKIA, at SFO, NRT or LAX?

As the fastest-moving place on the planet for the last fifteen years, Shanghai’s shift should come as no surprise to this once resident. And, on my third visit since departure, finally, it does not. Instead it comes with sadness born of empty storefronts that once housed comforting restaurants, once held a tiny shop curated by an owner for whom the space represented a life’s dream. In fact the list, when organized, represents a comprehensive naming of places once frequented by a boy on an electric scooter.

Shanghai has gotten richer, has purchased the yellow Lamborghini that sits on Wuxing Lu, a block from my first apartment. Shanghai now works in Ermenegildo Zegna offices, on the 50th floor of a building in Lujiazui.

The changes are not all so individually grand yet overwhelm in their completeness. The basement of Metro City in Xujiahui is no longer filled with hundreds of booths selling semi-pirated electronics. Instead Carl’s Jr offers the same food they do anywhere, an entirely new entrant into the China fast food scene. Likewise some of the boom of two thousand eight has been swept away. A huge two-story shop launched as the flagship of a nationwide chain, the Chinese version of Threadless’, has been so completely overwritten that I am not now sure where it stood on a street of identical single-story storefronts.

The shop of two Chinese hip hop lovers who sold me my Taiwanese mesh back cap with its image of a Japanese yogurt drink-bearing scooter could have been replaced by any one of a dozen small jewelry shops, each featuring a single bored middle-aged woman as attendant. These shops might be owned by a single diamond conglomerate, itself using the multitude of fronts to run well-controlled experiments on which dress on the mannequin in the window attracts more customers.

What is it about humans that makes them copy each other so carefully? We truly are social creatures, and at some seventeen million, Shanghai is a test bed for our tendency towards duplication.

A fancy bakery opened my last year here is not only closed but has had all of its signage poorly redone in Chinese English at least once, demonstrating a now-failed attempt to copy the original in between. Three short years later and my friend, taking time off from work to write as I once did, says he is going to a cafe.

I used to write in Boona 2, on Fuxing,” I offer, remembering my favorite cafe, bustling on weekends and with plentiful power outlets.

That’s been closed for years,” he says, I write in the cafe that replaced it, absolutely horrible but constantly empty.”

I shake my head at the improvement, and wonder about the financials of such a switch.

My roommate’s motorcycle, left in our basement garage in two thousand eight as we fled, which had remained in its dark corner on my visits in two thousand nine, and ten, is gone. Who now rides that machine which he once slid so gracefully through an intersection beneath Yan’an, the weight of both it and him skidding on his MacBook’s aluminum chassis? I look for it as I wander the French concession, wondering whether those scrapes would be recognizable, and how much it was sold for.

We are temporary creatures, maintained by our habits and effort.  All signs of our passing will one day be erased.

Humid country

The mood of a place is dependent on small things, and weather. In San Francisco every single part of the city is informed by fog, by the lack of it or the lack of visibility it brings. Sunshine is a thing of sparse moments and joy, and the changes to workdays and clothing that come with the East Coast’s hundred degree days are hard to imagine, let alone replicate. We move in wide circles, but as I have said before, our bodies have short memories.

San Francisco smells of fruit and tall trees, of wind and buildings built primarily of wood. It smells of the dust from China that blows off the Pacific. Over everything, in the early afternoons of the season that the rest of the country calls summer, it smells like a city, a place where humans have struggled in close proximity for a hundred years.

And then the fog comes in, and the peninsula smells like an island in the ocean, the air filled with water and sand. On Irving, a man walking to dinner in July of two thousand eleven might wear a wool hoodie and jeans. In Brooklyn the same amble to dinner would entail shorts and flip-flops, sunglasses and a t-shirt.

Along Irving the street lights go on at six, their routine unchanged by the lengthening of day, for the fog darkens everything.

Thus in July we flee to the east, and drive windows down across Staten Island. The Verrazano bridge toll has been raised to $13, and the traffic is thick with accidents. The rental car is our fortress, allowing safe passage from state to state, allowing us to grow accustomed to the humidity without carrying our luggage as we do so. The gift of red-eye travel is in these surprising mornings before our new locations awake.

In New Jersey we play frisbee in the back yard, barefoot in the humid air, and sit on the deck in the afternoons, grateful for the quiet hours. After a few days we drive up through Pennsylvania, along roads from my childhood, past the small towns of her grandparents’ history. The gentle hills are green and the air is thick with fresh cut hay, with flies, and with small towns. After the West Coast’s sprawling hours of land without cities, the transition from New Jersey to Pennsylvania to New York takes no planning and happens in a leisurely afternoon.

From the city, if not the house, of my birth, we adventure. We swim in gorges and wander to waterfalls. We sit by the side of the lake and watch the light fade, and set things alight and let them drift into the sky. Further from the ocean the air is less humid, and the long evenings a glorious reminder of what summer usually means. We do not think of San Francisco, or fog, choosing instead to watch lightning bugs in the trees of the back yard, their small flashes miraculous gifts of light.

In New York City later we sit on the concrete of Williamsburg and eat hand-crafted donuts in the shade, Manhattan across the water looking gorgeous in the sunshine. In the evening we crowd into the one room with an air conditioner, this strange piece of equipment everyone in New York has purchased as they grew able in the last decade of employment. In San Francisco no house has these boxes in the windows. Instead we shut the glass against the fog in the evenings and fling it open in the morning to let the wind in.

The evenings in Brooklyn move from park to rooftop to sofa, from large exuberant celebrations of summer to small conversations about the practicalities of shared spaces, and the hours fly quickly. In another two dozen we are back on our coast, back in the weather that is not a season, and back to the courtyard that houses a cat. The vacation has ended, and the memory will fade from our skin, but we have seen New York, and summer, again.

When in clouds

Directions are meaningless without a view of the ground. They serve as only the end points of a journey, and the transition from Texas to Nevada is difficult to note without the details of terrain, without any sense of the obstacles crossed. In the dark Las Vegas looks like a place half built by fantastic creatures with wild minds and half built by the most boring of beige square-desiring late 20th century Americans. Despite our individual wants we cannot escape the habits of comfort and communal conformity. In the seat behind me a woman composes a presentation. To my left another reads a self-help book, part of a poorly named genre.

To my right the window looks out on the Pacific, another journey entirely. The water feels fresh and beckoning, like the edge of the world I know it not to be. The opposite side has seats facing the valley, facing the mountains and deserts beyond that. Each time I am offered the choice on a small screen filled with chairs I choose the ocean, never the land.

I grow older on these flights, and learn about the bible.

An hour outside of Texas a woman gives me her explanatory book, heavily annotated. I cannot bear to throw away her efforts and in turn carry it for weeks, looking for a home for this most worn of thin-paged texts. Twice I offer it up to others who take it in jest and then peruse in earnest, once even borrowing it for a week, but eventually it is returned.

We travel in circles, unable to see.

I awake one morning in JFK with my best friend, and we have coffee without hurry at a place near the gate. He is sure this is the best the terminal has to offer, I am confused by the brief blast of humidity between jet and jetway and gate. A week later he will come home from work to find me reading on his sofa, us both within reach of the Pacific. In between he will see Vegas and I will see…

I stand on a mesa outside of a Mexican town famous only for its affordable beer. There is no sign of habitation save the road that stretches off in front of me, first down the hill and then out into the valley. In the distance other plateaus rise likewise from the rock, without vegetation or inhabitants. Across this vast expanse of land the weather varies but with enough visibility nothing it will bring can surprise.

Behind me stands a great mass of concrete and steel designed to keep men from their families, and from doing whatever they please. Ahead of me some few miles runs a strange fence, its individual panes the shade of rusted iron. It sways in the wind slightly, or seems to from a distance. From this side I do not approach it, tales of American vigilante posses too possible to tease me.

I do not quite grasp the language, but the motions for removing one’s belt and wallet seem to be a universal constant, and I leave the car with only my ID. It is worn and will be replaced in 2012 with one that bears a more passing likeness to me.

Where is that boy?” one of my companions says, when presented with that smiling picture.

It’s from a photo booth under the Saikyo line in Japan,” I say, as though that explains everything.

We walk in through scanners and detectors, with declarations and pat downs, to do the things we woke early in another country to do. And on the way out we stand quiet in the startling brightness, the sun in full reflection off the concrete and sand, and cover our eyes with our hands.

We do not speak about it, but we are trying to remember this landscape forever.

Unexpected life

I live up in the back,” he says, gesturing with the lit end of his cigarette towards the red awning of Northern Tiger Kenpo. Inside, through the plate windows that are remnants of the space’s commercial origin, a dozen ten year olds pivot and punch the air in unison. Their shouts are muffled from outside, and in the afternoon light we watch their practice for a while. Clad all in white, with their belts of differing colors, they are led by a man in his forties, with the kind of solid physique, the sense of density, so suited to a martial arts instructor.

I take care of the place, look out for it, and he lets me stay there.” His explanation comes with the self-deprecation of one who is not sure how they came to be where they are. We’ve been friends for years, he’s helping me out.” The last matter-of-factly, un-embroidered. It’s pretty quiet,” he tells me, cigarette almost finished. Except when they’re training…”

Right,” I say, as he rubs the butt out with his shoe, and picks it up again. When they’re training, from three pm to eleven or so, he is often outside, calmly watching the sidewalk here a few steps from Irving. We look to the corner, past the shoe repair and Chinese medicine place, to the corner stores and the frozen yogurt shops beyond. A young couple strolls, arm in arm, across 19th, heading east. They don’t look right to see us, one holding a cigarette butt, now crushed, and one holding two bags of groceries from 22nd Street Grocery, the Greek-owned store that sells many kinds of olives, cheese and fresh vegetables, but no meat. It is my favorite grocery store.

It’s a good neighborhood,” I say, trying to offer something up to the silence between us, a quiet penetrated only by the vague shouts of the practice in Northern Tiger and the slap of the Chinese men up the street putting down pieces in their never-ending Xiangqi game. He nods, following my gaze up to the folding metal table set up near the curb and the three men who surround it, one in plastic sandals and leather jacket, one in suspenders, all focused most furiously on the game. They speak Cantonese, I’ve discovered, and seem to play at least six hours a day, out on the sidewalk if the weather’s willing and in the open garage if the Sunset is threatening rain.

This is our block, me and my quiet apartment building where Chelsie the cat patrols the courtyard, Northern Tiger where classes of young girls, young boys, and older men learn how to defend themselves, and the game of Chinese Chess. The man standing before me, his hair slowly gowing gray, is a part of this block, a silent watching witness, someone who nods hello and recognizes everyone. I don’t know where he’s come from, prior to the strange loft at the back of Northern Tiger, it’s contents hidden by a sheet strung up as a curtain, separating it from the worn wooden floor of the training area.

A year and a half later I wonder one day if he’s moved on. Working far to the north I no longer spend afternoons wandering slowly up and down Irving, doing groceries or laundry, buying household supplies or wine. The game of Xiangqi continues I know, it’s members still outside on warm Saturdays, seemingly unchanged by the last year. The smoking man of Tiger Kenpo though may have moved on, his arrangement always felt short term, just for a while, in his own words. Where is he now, and what does he do, what did he do before moving into the dojo by himself?

And then one evening I am walking down Irving in the warmth of an April night and I see him, almost invisible in the dark. The door to Tiger Kenpo is propped open with a wooden wedge, and the interior dark. Were it not for this man, smoking without sound beside the parked cars of 19th, it would seem abandoned. As I turn the corner, on the far side of the street, he finishes and ducks back in, latching the glass and metal door behind him and disappearing into the dark.

Where did he come from, I wonder again, and what has he done this past year, while I’ve been away most days? What does he think about his life now, lonely after the students have come and gone, after the master has taught and then packed up, changed and gotten back in his car to return home. When they have all left and the place no longer rings with rythmic shouting, when he sweeps and turns off the lights and steps outside into the night to smoke, what does he think about this block, this city?

These questions fill me, heading home again with arms laden with dinner, and I peer inside as I pass by. There is nothing to see, no lights on even up in the loft at the back. When we first met I wondered if he trained at the dojo, and how he’d met the owner. Mostly, tonight, I am happy to see him, still a part of this neighborhood, and I hope he would agree.

Becoming one city

In the first long afternoons of light the city looks strangely wide. Swinging down from the hills of Marin towards the Golden Gate it stretches out before him across the horizon from the bay to the ocean. The peninsula is painted white and green and white and green again, the overlapping colors of buildings and hills, trees and houses that remind him of the importance of topography in any representation of San Francisco. There are strange tall points, the TransAmerica building, the Hong Kong-esque apartment towers of Russian Hill, with their tiered balconies, and the oddly-large churches of Pacific Heights, of the Richmond. Coight Tower is small and almost invisible in the light, off to the left. Behind it, reaching out towards the islands and the cranes of Oakland, the Bay Bridge forms an edge to the view of this city framed by suspension towers.

San Francisco, in the right light, is capable of surprise. He is reading fiction again at pace, working through stories of this city first read long ago without the aid of geography. Revisiting his mental San Francisco now with new layers of personal history, the same way he’d obsessed over Shanghai, Tokyo, he discovers buildings and locations. To take a city out of literature and into one’s own history is a delicate act. Often the fragile place of words and imagination is lost forever, mental ties not strong enough to withstand the daily monotony of work and rent and grocery shopping. Sometimes though, on afternoons like this one, the city provides its own majesty, reminding the newly arrived that yes, here is the place of stories, a landscape of the human so varied and involved as to conjure history.

Re-reading these books about this city he is caught up in their description of bridges, of people, and of light. On the bridge now he looks towards the ocean, where the sun is setting into the fog. A freighter works its way towards him, bearing goods from Japan, heading for the port of Oakland across the bay. By the time it docks the light will have faded and the fog moved in on his home, hidden from view on the bridge by the green hills of Golden Gate Park. By the time the light fades he will have crossed the other bridge as well, exploring the train tracks across the bay, where grass fields are lit behind warehouses and beneath freeways that reach towards Cheyenne, Cleveland, New York.

The weather of things

In the steaming fog of the dumpling shop the rain outside doesn’t seem so out of place. On Irving this afternoon the sun was hidden by clouds long before it set, late now the day after the equinox. The streets have been filled with shoppers, students, families these past few days, since the sun no longer sets at five. Daylight Saving Time may be an oddity, a trick we play on ourselves with math and clocks, but it works. We are a happier people when we see the sun.

Tonight the wind came in early, fog and rain along side. No one complains, knowing deep down winter is over. Even in California the spring brings relief, and it’s tempestuous showers cause no ill will.

This is dumpling weather,” she says. I concur. This is weather for fogged-up windows and large numbers crammed in small rooms. We take novels and drink tea, ordering in fragmented Mandarin and cherishing the hot sauce. On the way home we watch the rain, lighter now, patter on the pavement, reflecting the headlights of 19th Ave.

This weather’s good for the Little Shamrock too,” I say, continuing our conversation about things just perfect for this weather. The self-proclaimed oldest bar in town, the Shamrock is a cozy kind of place with a fire and padded chairs, built for rainy Sundays.

They wouldn’t do well in a sunnier neighborhood,” she says. Too dingy.”

We cross, watching the fog sneak across the street on Irving, now fully at ground level. It is our second year here, in this weather of swirling shapes and constant drizzle that we so enjoy in part because we know where to go when the world becomes a place of damp and chill. Having learned the neighborhood grown out of the fog, we are no longer put down by it’s weight.

In Houston there were no dumpling houses like the King of Noodle, no bars like the Little Shamrock. Instead Poison Girl featured bike racks outside and a garden that was heavenly in February, perfect in November. Filled with plants and vines that snaked up and over the walls into neighboring yards, this space felt felt utterly unlike the dive bar it belonged to, and yet perfectly attached. Like the Shamrock, Poison Girl was built of it’s neighborhood, of it’s weather.

Weather is the strongest of forces, a statement that needs no proof save the news, and it shapes the places of people far more than we pretend. At Beach Bum on Boracay the drinks are built for long afternoons spent barefoot on the sand, and when storms blow they build walls of sand against the rising tide. It is an establishment made possible by the location, and then refined by weather.

To know a city, a town, a beach, then, we must embrace the weather there, be it by hiding near the fire or lolling barefoot. In San Francisco that idea has taken us most of two years to learn, here where the ocean joins the air and rolls over the land, where the fog is a member of the neighborhood, and where the best bars are cozy, the best restaurants steamy.

Limited visibility

The feet of the Sutro Tower are planted in the ground, its tips lost in the clouds.

I have limited visibility on this,” he says. His voice crackles with the static of a VoIP connection from an unnamed location. Looking out at the marina in the dense fog of a Petaluma morning, I nod. Limited visibility is something we’ve grown used to in Northern California.

Coming over the bridge in the morning the water is clear out to the horizon, towards Japan and Taiwan. To the right Angel Island and Alcatraz look like good spots for lunch, and I promise myself again to get to both of them. I will. They’re not far, just over the hill, out in the bay. From my house though they are invisible, beyond the park, beyond the hills. My house has limited visibility.

I only have another seventy years, at most,” she says, as we walk down Irving on the clearest of Sundays. On my tiptoes I could see the ocean. That’s all I’ll get to see,” she tells me. I want to see more of it, I want to see it all.” She is reading a book about the far future, where the phrase the world’ has to be clarified with a name, because there are many.

Limited visibility.” It comes out under my breath, lips almost unmoving.

I won’t ever know,” she says, and that ends the conversation the way only a horizon can.

What do you hear?” I ask my consultant, who could be in Panama, or Dubai. Sometimes he is, and sometimes he tells me so. Usually I don’t ask, because it’s better, in a world where I can’t see the highway that crosses the river just north of the marina, to pretend he’s in San Francisco high up on a hill. Nearby, with better visibility.

They have no schedule,” he says, and the fault is clean, not belonging to either of us. Like the fog.

When I drive north in the mornings, after the bridge, there is a clear spot, several miles of sunshine. I watch the oncoming traffic for headlights on or off that speak of Petaluma’s weather far ahead. By mile fifteen mine are often on too, an indication of how long I’ll be on this road, that the sunshine is not my destination.

I wonder at those who have fought, over years, for small changes. The right to serve without lying, the right to vote, the freedom to believe. The freedom to move, or to settle down and stay. I marvel again at the building of cathedrals, the dedication to any goal, real or ideal, that will only be true at the end of a lifetime.

Fighting like that, the gradual protest and continual argument that keeps those in power honest and allows, when the truth at last becomes obvious to all, the world to move forward, seems perhaps the hardest thing. This is the truth of the future though, and what growing up means: when the day comes, and it will, it will not be for us. The idea makes me weary.

This problem has continued for much of this decade,” an email I get about San Francisco transit problems begins, my eyes skimming as I delete it.

After less than two years here I have purchased a car. I did not fight for decades, though I still give money to the cause, still give time.

Perhaps I am yet fighting. Perhaps I will still be, at the end of this decade. Or maybe mass transit will have flourished here, and the future come. In Shanghai the subway now covers the city, and trains spread out to cover the country. These are my ways of saying the future does come, and is worth working towards. These are my ways of saying that we may not see what we so long to, but that isn’t all that matters.

These are ways of growing up.

Driving back across the bridge one afternoon, after giving my grandfather his first computer, the air is thick and the sun, setting over the hills by the ocean, litters everything with pink. That light might be made tangible by a place is an amazing idea, and is so much of this city. The Transamerica pyramid cuts through the mist, its sharp edges fighting to remain distinct.

On top of the hill the Sutro Tower’s base is shrouded in fog. Hundreds of feet up its points catch the last true rays of sun and leap forwards, shadows writ large on the pink clouds far out over the Castro.  Their streaks are colossal reminders of how much we can build, given time, and how beautiful it can be in the right weather.

Places I slept, 2010

San Francisco, CA

Santa Monica, CA

Shanghai, China

Shaoxing, China

Cherry Hill, NJ

New York, NY

Seattle, WA

Sacramento, CA

Fort Collins, CO

Duluth, MN

Green Bay, WI

Chicago, IL

Manzanita, OR

Miami, FL

Clark, Philippines

Boracay, Phillippines

Houston, TX

Another good list, and a streak kept alive. I’ve been out of this country every year for a decade now. Here’s to saying the same for the next one.

Get out of this country

Without this trip I’d have broken my streak,” he says. We are standing barefoot on the world’s finest sand, Red Horse in hand, watching the sun light up the ocean and clouds as it sinks. I do not need the streak explained.

How many years?” I ask.

Five.” A good number, half of the last decade. We watch the sun set, toes sifting the beach. World’s finest, in this case, is not an abstract label of quality applied by the local tourism board. Rather it is a measure of size, grain for grain. Though this island may not truly be the world’s anything a survey of our group reveals experience on the beaches of five continents, and none finer. Surrounded by friends, a few steps from the shade of buildings and trees, we are wrapped in the color of the approaching evening. The water is warmer than the air and the days are still long at the beginning of December.

What does this city have to offer me?
Everyone else thinks it’s the bee’s knees.

My friend does not mention that, in his streak of five years, he has learned a smattering of Mandarin and become fluent in German. He doesn’t mention that he has made hundreds of friends, or how these years have changed his approach to work, to housing, and to vacations. He doesn’t have to.

On the beach we toss a frisbee around without urgency. This white plastic disc has brought us all together, in Asia, in the US. It has kept us close through moves and new countries, jobs and relationships. Yet this week it is simply a toy, to be brought out and put away, to be organized around and kept track of. Because the people are here already, they do not need to be assembled. The people and the sunsets and the sand and the water, and life feels complete.

Let’s hit the road dear friend of mine

Five years is enough time. It is time enough for our home nation to change presidents, for economic growth to reveal its cyclical nature, and for us all to settle down, at least a little. Five years ago we lived in the same city, and we played the same game. Years later we again live in the same city, and still play this game. Most everything else has changed. The language we speak daily has changed, as have our jobs. We’ve left behind belongings and gained new apartments, stomping grounds and teammates. We’ve left behind a lot of frisbees.

Let’s get out of this country

she sings and we agree. At least once a year, for as long as we can manage it, for five years or ten. As twenty ten grows short we smile at each other, having kept our streaks alive. Over the ocean the sun drops into the water, leaving pink echoes in the sky. We are lucky to be sharing a city again in San Francisco, and lucky to be standing here again on Boracay.

Quoted lyrics from Camera Obscura’s Let’s Get Out of This Country” off of the 2006 album of the same name

Out again

Returning to the circuit, Los Angeles Seoul Shanghai Shaoxing, after a few years away, everything has faded slightly. The feel is familiar, but the names have gone, and I am constantly asked if I remember things I do not think I have ever learned.

Over the Pacific I watch a romantic movie and cry repeatedly. Without the certainty of destination the flight out is one of separation. In the airport in Seoul I am again the solo traveler, proceeding from Gate 25 to Gate 43 over the span of two hours. My movements if viewed from above would be erratic and unrepeatable. But I am alone, and whether I wander down a corridor to look for a bathroom farther from the smoking lounge or whether, unknowingly, I sit at Dunkin’ Donuts and then go looking for my gate on a board down the hall only to find it eventually, behind the donut counter, the result is the same. Two hours later, having used the free wifi that does not filter social networks to say goodbye on them, I am again on a plane, over an ocean that does not touch the continent I woke up on.

In Shanghai I am part of the flow, not surprised or hurried, filling out forms in Immigration with the precision of those who long ago memorized their passport and visa numbers. The lines are shorter and in different locations, but the process has not changed, no one takes fingerprints. Coming down the escalator I remember this feeling, from my returns to Japan. Seoul was just a touch stone, a way to remember where I was going by remembering how to get there, like passing familiar landmarks on the drive to a childhood home.

Getting cash from the HSBC machine that lies inside the Customs gate I wish for a view of myself, time lapse composited, doing this in 2004, in 2007. The change in attire, in airport congestion, in personal urgency. Arriving in the morning I lack the push of those whose flights land after dark, who suddenly find themselves far from home and very tired. At ten am I walk to the taxi line, words slipping back into my mouth as they are needed.

Shanghai has grown in my absence, as noted elsewhere, but this first day it is a veneer of uncertainty covered by the plush carpets of a four star hotel’s long term housing. In the morning I am on a train, to a city small and still building concrete towers. The list of station names along the way recalls bus trips along this route years before, to factories I no longer am responsible for, whose forgotten owners do nothing to ground my soul on this stretch of fields and rivers, cities and farms.

As the train passes a road in the smog-filtered morning light I watch the dozens of people on their bicycles and scooters waiting behind the guard rail. Out here past the plush edges I find China still the same, filled with the crazy combination of past and future, bullet trains that travel upwards of two hundred mph and peasants whose homes are built of mud. It is a cliche, but a comforting one, something I have lived through, and it pulls the veil of change from Shaoxing. The streets have changed and DVDs are harder to find, but electric bicycles are still silent, televisions still loud.

On the outskirts of Shaoxing I see a single story red brick building in the middle of a lake. With dark tiles on its peaked roof it sits on a small island, connected to the shore by a foot bridge, picturesque in the way only something made in the last century as a copy of something ancient can be. Whether house or storage area I can not tell, and imagine the owner waking every morning surrounded by water, perhaps with the accompanying fowl.

On the shores of the lake, set back from the water by swaths of grass that has never grown well, are fifteen story towers of sandy concrete, balconies of apartments built in the 80s, dark and disheartening. Ten of them circle the water, and in the afternoon must cast shadows across it’s whole surface.

Back in China less than twenty four hours, still uncomfortable with the language and detached by the speed of transit, I watch the red building slip behind, curious about its inhabitants, more curious about its picturesque setting and invisible purpose.

Still standing

On the corner of Irving and 16th there is an old service station. It stands alone, a tiny garage with car park area in front. At first glance it looks intact, as though the owners have simply stepped out for lunch, having no cars to work on. The fencing that surrounds the lot makes the truth clear. The brick facade is cracking in places, and the pavement is uneven. In one corner the hole for an underground tank is visible, and behind the station there is a stand-alone garage, part of a more recent expansion, likewise fenced off and abandoned. Lubrication, the back building offers, in letters more than a foot high. But this second structure is not the point, it holds no sentimental value, a simple concrete structure. It is the front building, smaller and older, with windows cracked and dirty, that calls to curious passers-by.

Why has it not been refurbished, they wonder, on this street of continual repurposing?

Is it a Super Fund site, home to toxic chemicals leaking from an old underground tank that any new owner would have to first remove?

Is it simply the property of a mechanic in his later years, far too old to crank up a car and have a look beneath, but not yet dead?

There is no way to tell without searching out the deed, without making a study of this small property gone quiet on a busy street.

This is the legacy of America, this tiny garage and others like it, old schools on Long Island and hospitals upstate. These are the history of a country born late and with so much space. In some countries the repurposing is faster, and giant drive-ins do not sit empty for years, their screens slowly rotting in the shifting weather, accompanied by cars no longer used by young couples. America’s history is one of left behind creations, of still standing attempts at greatness, and quickly forgotten industries. In a place so focused on the future and the new, where reclamation is a civic project rather than a necessity, things no longer needed simply stand empty. In the desert outside of Phoenix hundreds of airplanes sit waiting, just in case, their bodies wrapped in plastic against the heat.

This is a result of youth, but also of time. America has no structures built by small towns over centuries, it has no grand cathedrals that bankrupted kings. Instead, like many places, it has the mansions of the very rich who built until they died and left no heir, whose fortresses and castles became museums after long periods of abandonment. Boldt castle on Hart Island in the St. Lawrence lay empty and incomplete for seventy three years before restoration began, with the aim not of completion, but of returning to the moment of abandonment. All across America these monuments stand, tales not of grandeur and history as much as of waste and desire.  They are not unique to this country, but in a land of such sprawling youth I can not but be amazed at what we have built and left behind.

This is America, and our history is short, filled with dreams and old achievements cast aside and forgotten, yet still visible.

Walking by the little service station on the corner of 16th and Irving I remember all those others, likewise waiting for the weather and the graffiti artists.

We are the world

Once every four years we remember what it is about other countries we so enjoy: beating them at something. People with no normally-visible national spirit suddenly wear flags and stay up all night hoping for the downfall of nations they know so very little about. Countries are categorized swiftly, and on the smallest of things, using words like rubbish” and gritty” that are either awkward or insightful. This is the World Cup, and it’s a wonderful time.

At seven am on a Saturday there is a man running the streets of North Beach. He is clad primarily in the English flag, St. George’s Cross, and a hat of the same colors. He leaps and yells, sprints and screams, and pauses occasionally to say Hello” to passing strangers. He poses for pictures, or at least pretends to, before dashing away. He is mad, or happy, or madly happy, and he elevates the entire neighborhood. It is seven am on a Saturday morning, and they were sleeping. The England v. USA game begins, in this time zone, at eleven, by which time he will be sweaty and flushed, and ready for the throng that greets his triumphant entrance into the pub.

That’s not a flag he’s wearing, it’s a proper cape!” says one of the onlookers, having caught quite a glimpse on the sidewalk. Indeed it is a cape, perhaps custom-made, and the construction earns him street cred from those wearing store-bought jerseys.

Inside the bar, waiting for pints and waiting for the match, their jerseys do draw comment, a display of camaraderie and knowledge.

Altidore, nice,” we say on seeing Jozy’s 17, or Dempsey, looking for a goal from him today.” The US white jersey dominates, this being San Francisco and the US blue featuring a hideous bandolier-style white diagonal. The English supporters wear hats and homemade gear, though Rooney’s top-selling shirt floats around, worn by men who will be strangely quiet once the game begins. Yet in some way they will win this meeting, their language and descriptions dominating, their accents percolating through announcers to the mouths of the American fans. In the United States football may be the rest of the world’s sport, a minor thing, but the language of football is not global, it is English, in the same sense of the word as the man’s cape as he streaks by the window shouting unintelligible enthusiasm.

This is a funny time to be American, to be at home in America, for the oft-repeated notion that Americans are starting to pay attention to football.” By this is a funny time” I mean not this month bridging June and July in the northern hemisphere’s summer, but the World Cup. Similar statements were made in 2006, in 2002, in 1998, and in 1994, which is as far back as my memories stretch with accuracy. It is World Cup season, and we Americans are suddenly awake to the globe’s furor.

Yet we are not. In Berlin a friend tells me how as he sat watching the game last Saturday in an outdoor cafe every passer-by would stop to check the score, to ask who’d scored, or to comment on the quality of play. Grandparents, children, women with babies, people on bicycles, young friends, all wanted to know what was happening at that moment in South Africa where Australia was playing Ghana.

It’s amazing,” he says, of being in Europe for the World Cup, everyone cares.”

In Japan in 2002 I lived less than five miles from the stadium in Saitama, and remember most the feeling of being there. Matches were not just things to watch, but events, and the easiest way to understand was to go outside, to find a huge display, to find a crowd of cheering supporters. The streets of Tokyo were filled with crowds of cheering people sporting colors of nations they may or may not have been born in, a rare combination of accepted nationalism that fit so perfectly into the first dual-hosted World Cup.

Four years later, awake at odd hours to watch matches in Germany, a friend and I lamented our lack of foresight in being so distant. We should move every four years, even if only for the summer. It was absurd talk and a wonderful notion, forgotten in our planning after the tournament’s end.

Yet here we are, four years later, amid the greatest sporting event on the planet, he in Germany and I in San Francisco, only one of us in the proper time zone and neither of us in the correct country. With internet broadcasting, with bars that open early and fans that flash their colors regardless of their current city, we can still be caught up though, and run the streets in our flag. The crazed energy that comes from being on the streets outside the stadium, let alone at the matches themselves, can remain a goal for the future, about four years from now.

Presidio housing

Tell me the story of your house again,” he says, standing in the hallway with his head tilted back so his eyes can encompass the stairwell, balustrades of aged wood brown against the railing’s white.

The woman who found it used to sneak in here, years ago when everything was abandoned and run down,” his companion says, looking up as well. Her eyes though do not see the freshly-painted walls, the painting of a knot as a leaf, an intricate puzzle three feet wide in blues and greys that fills one wall. She sees instead the stairwell as it was on her introduction to the house, with huge ferns in pots along the steps, their fronds draping down so that the space seemed filled with green and living.

How did she find it?” he asks, his voice full of wonder at this woman who had entered abandoned buildings and eventually made them home.

I think she used to explore, a bunch of people did. Until a few years ago everything here was empty, all this renovation, every building used to be abandoned.” She sweeps her arm about them as she speaks, encompassing the house, street, and whole Presidio. It was spooky then.” It is now, he thinks, looking out the living room’s tall windows to where the fog creeps through the trees. On this Saturday in early September the hour is indistinguishable, five am or two pm, the house encased completely in a shroud of moisture.

How many rooms? People?” He asks the questions to bring them back to the concrete, away from the eerie feeling of being worlds away from the city, from the other people he knows in this state. She looks again out the window and then, before answering, leads him out of the living room, its couches in no danger of touching, and into the dining room, with a long oak table several inches thick. It is a place for banquets, and a raging fire to ward off the approach of night.

Twenty two, counting bathrooms and the attic and all that. There are ten of us now. There were eight, when I moved in, but now we’re at ten.” Her sentence is inclusive, communal. He is surprised at the numbers, not because of their size, some sense of which he has already grasped, but by the cleanliness, the emptiness. The porch had shown signs of occupancy, a magazine and a cigarette pack, and the mudroom likewise, shoes and a few jackets, a safari hat. The interior, though, mirrors the woods outside, empty and with no horizon, rooms stretching onwards, hallways and a kitchen, more doors. The stairwell, living room, and dining room are not just empty but uncluttered, as though they were always so. The silence, balanced against the huge artwork, the neat spacing of the three couches, the table’s oak expanse, give the house an almost museum quality. Perhaps it is just the tour, he thinks, and followed his host into the hallway, past spare refrigerators and a chart of chores.

Here’s one bathroom, and the kitchen,” she gestures. The kitchen is massive, three walls lined with white countertop, cabinets everywhere, and another refrigerator, double wide. And these are the back stairs. They were the servants stairs, before.” That single word, before”, penetrates his brain with visions of this house as a families, as the home of children, and their attendants. This makes the scale if not more understandable then at least supported, given cause other than as this vast monument to the Presidio’s separation and strangeness.

The second floor is mostly bedrooms, with a couple baths,” she tells him, as they wind up the carpeted stairs. Like the rest of the house the carpet is immaculate and the walls white. He walks three steps down the second floor hallway, a bathroom on either side. In front the corridor is lined with doors, all closed, and he retreats. At the far end he could just glimpse the end of the rail leading down into the front stairwell and their entrance.

How long have you lived here?” He wishes the awe was not so apparent in his voice.

Three years,” she says with a smile, and he knows then how much she loves giving this tour, hearing her friend’s amazement. I’m the only one left from when I moved in, everyone else is gone.” In a sense, he thinks, it is her house, despite someone else’s name on the original lease, despite the ownership by the Federal Government, despite the claim forever on it by the woman who had first explored it as an abandoned shell.

This is amazing,” he says, as they climb out of the stairwell and into the attic. It’s every surface is covered with sheets, with cloths, prints and solids, all bright colors tacked up in a patchwork, so that the effect is-

-This is our tripped-out party secret surprise room,” she offers, leading him up. The floor has been covered with rugs of all textures and colors, a collection of soft things underfoot that re-enforces the welcoming, cavelike nature of the space, with it’s slanting ceiling that reflects the house’s steep roof. There are a few beds up here,” she says, indicating one in the corner, and another around a bend that must be the living room’s fireplace, far below. This is where guests stay, or anyone, really. It’s our extra space.” They separate, and he grasps for the first time the attic’s scope. It mirrors the entire floor plan, save for the three porches, and while the coverings make it cozy, the beds, of which he counts three, illustrate the expanse. Following her around a corner the floor’s texture changes, to a lush fur over some sort of padding, and he realizes it is four mattresses, buried beneath the rugs, and two full size couches at their rear, facing outwards from the wall to his right.

This is our movie theater,” she says, indicating the projector overhead, mounted on the wall behind the couches, and the dvd player to their right. It plays on that wall, and there’s surround sound.” He finds the speakers, tall ones in the front and sizable rear ones, matte black, mounted on the wall to either side of the sofas.

Wow. Whose is this?” He makes the mistake again of treating the house like a normal apartment, like the collection of a disparate groups’ belongings.

It’s ours. We all chipped in for the projector, and an old housemate got the speakers.” Her simple statement surprises him, a reminder that although the living style is communal, although the people are artists and travelers, this is a space built with a purpose, by a group of people dedicated to its creation. In housing, as in everything, scale requires means and shared desire, opportunity and perseverance. Reaching the attic’s front-most bed he looks out, through a small window at the peak of the roof, down into the trees and the fog that swims through them.  The house, its immaculate lawn, and the street below sit in some parallel world, with San Francisco both just over the hill and unimaginable at the same time.

April again

In the late hours of the afternoon we lie on the rooftop drinking wine. This is good, and the skyline clear. On the horizon, beneath the sinking sun, the Pacific shimmers. It is April and the weather is impossible to top. We have spent the day in Berkeley playing ultimate, greatly to our liking, and come home to watch the evening settle, which it is taking hours to do.

Some part of us returns with the sun. From our window the next morning the leaves on the trees outside flutter and the clouds drift in bright sunlight. It is the rise of the year, April in the northern hemisphere, when the light truly begins to linger and the winter is forgot. Coming home from a month abroad I am surprised at the sunset’s seven pm start. While I was gone the clocks shifted, a change made stranger by my absence also for the corresponding November shift. China does not deal with time zones, let alone this odd springing ahead and falling behind.

Yet this joy at April is a hemisphere’s joy. A friend in Berlin who has made plans to leave all winter writes to say how much more alive the city seems with better weather, and how he could see another year there. I smile at this as he tells tales of a man who runs karaoke in the park, an unofficial act of organization and singing well-attended on sunny Saturdays. We live in good times, I think, and they are called April, soon May. Our spirits benefit from their repetition.

San Francisco does not winter like Tokyo, Boston, Shanghai or Ithaca, but the late evenings and bursts of mid-morning sunshine are welcoming. The gift of more light creates time after work to run and bicycle, to sit on the rooftop and to adventure. One evening we cook as the sun sets and then head downtown. Sia is playing, and the city feels alive with people as the street lights come on after eight. It is a week day and we are all out of doors again, every block filled with people lured by the warmth and the reminder of evening’s smells, sounds, and friends.

Sia is glorious, at home in her awkward presence and amazing voice, and we head back to our apartment past eleven. The last few blocks we walk slowly, aware of the neighborhood and in no rush to shelter.

On the rooftop on Sunday, our bodies sore and sunburned, she raises her glass to the Pacific as the sky begins to fade into shades of orange.

It’s so beautiful here,” she says, reaching to include Marin and and the city spread around us.

It is so beautiful now, I think, lying on my back in agreement.

Like San Francisco and Berlin, the sun has come and woken us again.

Expanding the city

In my absence, Shanghai has grown. To those familiar with the city this will not seem strange, it is the fastest-changing man-made place on earth, and home to some number of people between ten and twenty million.

Yet the Shanghai of two thousand three, and my arrival, was eminently walkable. Puxi, the true downtown, felt small, and Zhongshan Park or Hongqiao represented strangely distant areas discussed in curious tones.

We were looking at apartments near Zhongshan Park,” said my friend, in early two thousand four.

Wow. Zhongshan Park. Really?” we replied, the response one of perceived distance. Even then though Zhongshan Park was not far, the end of Line 2, one of the city’s pair of subways. Yet most of us lived on Line 1, and the single point of intersection was painfully crowded, avoided at all costs.

Hongqiao, further west still, was the province of Japanese companies and strange westerners, English teachers and the like.

I dated a girl in Hongqiao,” a boy once told me, more amazed, by his voice, at the location than the woman. So I spent a lot of time wandering around there trying out restaurants after work in the dark. I used to take the bus out to Hongqiao after school, 20 minutes or more, and wait for her to get off work.”

Even at the time of telling, in two thousand eight, his memory was of a distant place. Today Hongqiao, like Zhongshan Park, sits on Line 2, which has crept outwards to the airport on the city’s west side. Eastward too, though not completed yet, Line 2 is growing. The next time I am here it will reach Pudong’s airport, on the coast, as far east as it can go.

Shanghai has grown into itself. No longer do people cluster in the French Concession, around a handful of Line 1 stops. No longer do all my friends live within a fifteen minute walk. Instead they scatter to places I have never been, areas I never thought of as part of the city”. Yet they are, and were, filled with houses and shops, newly opened malls and supermarkets. Filled with newly opened metro stops.

Because what has grown in Shanghai, what has changed this city from a small sphere to an expansive metropolis, is not the influx of automobiles that crowd it’s tiny streets, but the completion of a metro system beneath them.

A friend asks if I can meet him on Sunday near his house, south west of Xu Jia Hui. I don’t know, I say, unsure of where he means.

For most of my five years in Shanghai Xu Jia Hui was the south west corner, the furthest point, a huge hub of roads and shopping malls that I lived just east of. On its opening in 2006 Shanghai South Railway Station became that point, past Xu Jia Hui down Line 1 . Occasionally I would wander the corridor of stops between those two spots, amazed at all the buildings and shops I’d never seen.

It’s easy,” my friend says of the path to his house, just take line 7 and 9, two stops west past Xu Jia Hui.”

What are lines 7 and 9, I ask, though I know there are now twelve in all.

Oh, there’s a site. Go check out www.exploreshanghai.com he replies. They have an iPhone app you should get.”  These are the kinds of things I would know, if I lived here.  This is the kind of knowledge I suddenly lack.

From the luxurious apartment I’m staying in, near Jing’an, to Guilin, I check. Up it comes, 19 minutes and 4 RMB. About $0.75.

That I can do,” I say.

Later on, walking through the streets near his home, which are filled with newly opened chain stores and old open-air markets, we talk about the changes, both of us here on and off since two thousand three.

Line 9 runs right along Zhao Jia Bang Lu,” he notes, a road we’ve both lived on at times. That would have been wonderful, life changing.”

And Line 7,” I add, is that north-south connection, between 1 and 2 that we always needed, rather than the bus!”

It’s amazing to realize. I’ve been gone a year and a half. When I left they’d just finished Line 6, which, like the G in New York, is the only line that never touches Puxi, winding through Pudong on the east side of the river. Line 4, the ring that encompasses the city’s center, was only a horseshoe, the result of a collapsed tunnel on the southern edge. Lines 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12 were under construction. Shanghai was under construction. Whole streets were torn up and most major intersections given over to diggings. Believing that the cost, an entire decade of frantic physical revisions, would be worth while, we all struggled through crippled traffic and the constant dirt that comes with making huge holes in the ground at two block intervals.

It still is under construction, this city, and the air is often filled with dust. Yet it has grown up, grown into it’s people and it’s global prominence. Sitting in a subway station beneath Zhao Jia Bang Lu, two blocks from my old apartment, changing trains between two lines that didn’t exist when I lived here, I watch the people waiting with me. They don’t look impressed by the station’s existence, by the fact that the train’s clockwork arrival matches the countdowns displayed, or by the fact that their cell phones work in the tunnels, on the trains, under the river. Perhaps they shouldn’t be, having paid for these gifts with a decade of relocation and dirt.

Shanghai has felt like the future for as long as I have known it, a mish-mash of brand new and well-lived-in. In March of two thousand ten it feels, like Gibson once said of Tokyo, as though the future is comfortably all around us. It’s a good feeling, and, waiting for the train, I am glad for those that will grow up knowing it.

Remembering fear

Last Thursday on Irving, between 19th and 20th, a man was shot to death in front of Phở Huynh Hiep 2. PHH, as it’s known locally, if it’s known at all, is a Vietnamese place, in as much as every restaurant must seek inspiration somewhere. Despite its plate glass windows and fluorescent lights it is popular, filled daily at noon and 7. Although some swear by rival PPQ, directly across the street, I can tell no difference.

Returning to America I must remember many things, from the proper place for crossing streets to the inadvisability of discussing someone while they are standing beside me. Crosswalks are interesting artifacts, but remembering to use both them and common courtesy is part of my cultural re-assimilation.

Working in theaters in SOMA or the Tenderloin and walking home late at night, assessing danger is another.

Asia is, in most regards, a phenomenally safe place, especially as a westerner. Ask any expat in Shanghai how many times they have fallen asleep in a taxi and how many of those rides have ended poorly.  Their answer will reveal the carefree manner in which I once navigated the world. This is not to suggest taxis in San Francisco, Houston or New York are unsafe places to sleep. Rather it is a demonstration of the security and comfort that I found in Shanghai and Tokyo.

The dispute on Irving does not bring fear to me. Police were watching, and the perpetrator arrested immediately. A violent dispute between Asian gang rivals over the correct choice of phở shop is not the fear I remember, nor do I think it should be. The homeless man passed out on the steps to the Civic Center MUNI & BART station is the fear.

Is he dead?” I ask myself. And then, more disturbing, how would I know?”

Would I even notice, care, or act? I step over his sprawled form. He grunts something about money. He is not making music.

In the evening, after the show, I suggest meeting at a bar.

Should I come get you at the station? Sixth street is sketchy.” The question is not chivalrous. It is born instead of a confusion, an awareness of how much I have forgotten. Is this neighborhood safe? Should I be worried for a woman walking alone? How should I solve this problem? This is the challenge of remembering fear.

In Shanghai we would walk home across most of the city at four am, certain only of our destination. There might have been desirable neighborhoods and less acceptable ones, but there were no areas to be avoided. There were no streets filled with drunk homeless men shouting. Drunk homeless women shouting. There were, and are, injured beggars, crippled children, destitute old men, but they do nothing more than occasionally bang their money bowls into passing arms and legs. In Shanghai the largest threats are bike thieves and pick pockets.

Looking at apartments in the Tenderloin in September we marveled at their size.

The ceilings are so high!” we told each other, heads tipped back.

It is cheap,” we acknowledged. The windows were large, and the ceilings arched overhead with delicate moulding. Spacious, almost grand, it was an apartment of a forgotten style, when buildings were built for the feel of the place, rather than the number of square feet or the view or the efficiency of use. We were not blind to modern improvements such as windows that would contain heat and faucets that did not clatter when running, but there was a majesty to this old building, to that wasted corner space where the walls curved, making shelving impossible.

There were six sex workers on this block,” she said. I nodded. I was imagining telling her parents where we had moved, and their first visit. I was imagining walking home late at night, or waiting for her to. I was trying to remember how uncomfortable this should feel, how afraid I should be.

We decided the number of crack dealers and sex workers was higher than we would be comfortable with, sitting alone in the apartment waiting for the other to come home. We decided that it was not the kind of neighborhood we wanted our parents to see us living in. We decided the ceilings were pretty, but the landlord lackluster.

We moved to the Sunset, which is more Asian, more friendly, less dangerous.

A man was shot on our block.

Everywhere we go, we ask ourselves if this is a good restaurant, that a good bar, this or the other hotel a better deal. We constantly seek the places locals like, the normal, comfortable situations. We are not unique, other travelers seek this information also. It is the desire to understand, born of a suddenly obvious lack.

Returning to America after years abroad I find the challenges similar. Can I leave my bike on the street? Bring it into the bar? Take it on the train?

What is safe, and what is normal? Where are we again?

Another winter

In San Francisco, it rains. His friends are happy, are ill, are new to town, exuberant, exhausted, and at work. They buy bicycles, have lunches, look for work, travel, drink, play ultimate, talk, speculate and hope. To see each other they take the cable car, in the rain. They wait for busses together, and trains, they bicycle and walk. Very rarely, they drive.

It is two thousand ten, and the car seems inconvenient, expensive, restrictive. Parking is costly and traffic bad, especially in the rain. Yet in the rain they value the car too. After ultimate they are glad of its four wheels four doors and an engine that makes heat. Buying bicycles and furniture they are glad of its trunk. Commuting in it they are glad of the ability to take jobs where public transit does not run, and yet distraught at the hours spent to do so.

In the first month of what might be a new decade his friends also plan, and hold meetings. They direct, act, celebrate and rehearse. He attends, happy to be again in the dark of a theater, in the shelter of strange buildings in SoMa or the Tenderloin.

On public holidays they walk together to the ocean and watch dogs run in the chill water of the Pacific. They watch a lone kite surfer, bold, skim the chop at ridiculous speed. And then they walk home, in the rain, wet and content, to do laundry and clean.

It is January 2010, and in his country politics are a disaster and the news often sad. He thinks briefly of leaving, as he did in 2000, in 2004. His friends are here though, doing so much in to San Francisco, and he resolves to stay, to learn, and to enjoy. New places beckon, both across the street and around the globe, but he is not leaving. Not yet. Instead he builds a new desk, places it at the window, and watches the weather.

In San Francisco, in January, it rains.

Comes an end

At the end of the year we look back, and tell stories. Often the stories are of people now distant or places we are far from. At the end of this year then, as the cat sits next to me, I will tell you two. Out the window to the right I can see the Marin Headland, and the tree in the back yard still has leaves. To a boy from New York, on the thirty first of December, this is worth noting. The ends of most years fade like most days, salvageable only with focus. Some though swim strangely before me, raised by music, perhaps, or phone calls, the voices of people involved.

In one of these memories a group of boys wander Shibuya, having taken the Saikyo line in from Saitama. They wear coats, for the weather is chilly, and have champagne in bottles in their bags, awaiting the midnight hour. Excited, they enter bars for brief moments, a single beer or a few songs on the dance floor. Occasionally they encounter familiar faces, and sometimes one or anther is left, engaged in conversation, while the rest spill back out onto the streets, where the real party is. They meet up in intersections, stairwells, and public spaces. They are not alone, the city is alive, from the video screens on famous buildings to the pulse of music from every doorway. These boys are young, and in love, in that way that young boys far from home can be, with Shibuya, with people everywhere, and with the evening. They cheer on strangers, and chat with bouncers who are likewise entertained by the celebration. They buy drinks in cheaper establishments and tend bar in fancier ones, as it is that kind of evening, people slipping in and out of roles and positions, gaining a phone number, a friend, or a bottle of gin. As midnight nears they re-unite, somehow coming close enough in the throng to pass champagne to each other, all part of a large circle of people they do not know. The Hachiko exit of the Shibuya station, made famous by countless movies, is an impassable mass of bodies, and the memory ends with the champagne.

Another year, another country, and the image I remember is of Huaihai, it’s lanes blocked by police for a show, a parade, and then fireworks. The year ending is celebrated by Chinese dance teams, by dragon costumes, and by the all-encompassing smoke of fireworks set off both in patterns and in fistfuls. A group of friends have wandered in from various edges of the crowd, working their way in one side street or another to try for a better view of the stage. This memory is from the years where Huahai at Huang Pi Nan Lu feels like the center of the city, before Shanghai sprawls out and becomes familiar. Zhongshan park is still unfathomably distant, and taxi rides avoided despite their scant cost. The parties of this winter are fueled by three kuai baijiu mixed with two kuai coke. But on this evening everything seems still, despite the throngs and the fireworks, the constructed stages and the pulsing lights. Even the crowds are patient with each other, at the end of the year. People wait, and help children up on to shoulders, they let old people to the front and climb phone booths carefully, concerned for the plastic and glass. It is a cold evening, and most have bundled up in hats save the construction workers, who watch from the edges hands in the pockets of their suits. After the show ends a couple walks home down the center of the street, holding hands as they step over the debris, broken costumes and expended fireworks. The crowd, which had filled seven blocks, is gone within thirty minutes, and, as they walk east, the street is given back over to cars by the elevated road, the new year already arrived, and the city returned to it’s plan.

At the end of the year we look back and we tell stories. Tonight, with some new friends and some old, we will go looking for celebrations, lucky to have had so many.

Places I slept, 2009

Houston, TX

Lansing, NY

Ithaca, NY

Baton Rouge, LA

Austin, TX

Big Bend, TX

Los Angeles, CA

Cincinnati, OH

San Francisco, CA

Portland, OR

Sacramento, CA

Fort Collins, CO

Near Gould, CO

Incline Village, NV

Shanghai, China

Shaoxing, China

The wonderful thing is not the number of places, but that they were seen multiple times, and involved so many friends.  May 2010 bring still more.

Returning souls

In the same time zone on the same continent a week now my body begins to understand its place. It is not the act of transit that leaves me so disconfigured, but the lack of location. In San Francisco for parts of three months, in Los Angeles twice, in Shanghai for a matter of days and Shaoxing a few weeks, I mind not the distances, but the lack of home. To those who frequent airports as business usual and shrug at the list just made, I note again, it is not the travel, but the lack of home.

We humans settle in the same fashion as cats. Chelsie, the cat from downstairs, hops onto the bed to find the afternoon sun. She has explored the closet, the bed’s underside, and the kitchen, looked for new purchases and imports from previous dwellings amid the piles, and is ready to furnace, her fur heated by the long rays of November. She turns once, surveying the alternatives to her spot just beneath the pillows, finds none better as she pushes gently at the comforter, assessing it’s softness, and settles. It is the act of someone who has come to rest in this spot before, who is aware of the benefits, and ready to be where they are. I watch her, as her eyes close in those long blinks that mean happiness, and realize my lack.

In transit for too long, stripped of all habits save the most basic, coffee in the morning and communication before bed, I have lost track of the best spot to settle, of where the light falls longest. With only a month in this apartment in a new city, a new state, and then weeks in a country I had left, with four months this summer afloat, borrowing other’s dwellings, though grateful my soul knows not where to rest.

Re-reading Pattern Recognition on the flight to Shanghai, the layover in Seoul, I remember Gibson’s brilliance in Cayce’s disconnect, her continual lack of comfort. It is a delicate point, and one I had seen but not felt on previous readings. There is a time for all books, or a place, I’ve been told, in long walks through Tokyo, and I agree. They are not places intended by the writer, though those surely exist, but rather specific locations that allow the story to resonate with the reader’s situation. Reading In the Skin of a Lion the second time, in Shanghai in 2003, with the cranes all around and the streets dirty with the sweat of men working underground, laying water and sewage in the hot August nights, the sacrifice of those forgotten builders of Toronto became impossible to avoid.  On successive readings it is the dust of China that returns to me most vividly.

This sense of understanding given to books and ideas by our body’s similar experiences strengthens many things. Yet relying on our bodies this way means that when they have no mooring, no familiar spot in the sun, we too are lost, adrift in the things our minds take in and call forth.

Here in the Sunset years past those Shanghai evenings, with an apartment again to myself during the hours of sunlight, I wait for my soul to return, for my body to remember the place I do inhabit, rather than those that I have.

From far away

They arrive gradually. Each one in turn is slotted underneath a single magnet. Eventually more will be needed, to keep up with their flow. They go up backs face out, a collage of hand-printed lettering. Their fronts contain scenes from this country or others, strange photographs, or sketches made popular not by the artist’s fame but by their very printing.

The longer I inhabit this house the more crowded that space will be, on the freezer’s front. Eventually these first to arrive will be replaced, their pictures long forgotten. They will be read one last time, to revive the memories, and placed in a box that has come with me from Houston, from Shanghai. That box is filled with similar already, and though I can not remember from where, the list of from who comes easily to mind. These ones, fresh delivered to a mailbox I have owned but a month, are a good representation of whose handwriting might also be found in that box. Because, like all habits, that of postcards written and stamped is one born out of repetition, reinforced by reciprocation.

Turning them over now, a momentary cataloguing of their pictures presents me with the Potala Palace, proof that my friends, again, have been on journeys I meant to take myself and have so far not managed. The next is of Brandenburger Tor, ensuring that my catalogue of famous monuments enshrined on postcards continues to grow. It too is proof, though of a different kind: that friends from Shanghai were not as daunted by Europe’s expense and moved eastward. The lessons are similar though, that all of the places I wished to go, whether to visit or live, are as accessible now as they have ever been. Yet here I sit, receiving these in a city in the country of my birth, the borders of which I have not crossed for more than a year.

The last is of Old North Wharf on Nantucket, a beautiful shot of houses with their boats at anchor in place of a lawn. It is America, in the view of water and peace, something I appreciate, from my house mate in Shanghai, who is likewise learning a new coast. It has traveled long, chasing me here from Colorado, to which it was sent at the end of the summer as I fled westward.

As we settle so too do I send out these missives, currently featuring whimsical Japanese art, to the corners of these United States and a variety of countries. I must learn where the post office is, and mailboxes. These worthwhile efforts are fueled by our decorated freezer, and the envelopes of longer letters that lie in the phone nook. For the most part they are small stories of happiness, and share a sense of wonder. Because although we are not beyond our borders, we are exploring, learning a new city and state. And after so long parts of America are as foreign to me as anywhere, all the more so because they ought to seem natural.

I am grateful though for the reminders of places and people I always mean to see, and one day will be glad to.

Irving in the dark

Tonight I am biking home from the video store, where I wheeled my Haro in and stuck Appleseed in the DVD return and wheeled out again, gliding down the sidewalk in the nine pm dark. Black hoodie no lights and a grin I crest one of the rises, happy to be back. They aren’t hills, I live out where it’s flat, where from the roof the sun sets on the Pacific, and where the wind from Asia shakes the trees. Tonight I am coasting down a sidewalk, silent, and the man walking out of the gym, shorts and sweat-wicking top, never sees me, his headphones in and head covered in sweat. I see him and dance past, my BMX nimble, its tires freshly inflated. Down the slope I go, past Roaring Mouse Cycles, who will swap out my brake cables on Tuesday next, something I’d thought about doing in Houston. But boxing and shipping and storing were in our future, this bike’s and mine, and those leave a lot of dirt on the chain, on everything, that needs cleaning and straightening.

Tonight we are done with that, this bicycle and me. Bought in Los Angeles while I was living in China I think it is glad, after our year’s sojourn in Houston, to be back in California, within reach of the Pacific. So am I, glad to be slipping down Iriving amidst the cars and fixies, late night diners and homeless men who accost me, hey you on the bike!”

This little trip to the movie store is one of our first jaunts, just a quick spin up to 9th and Le Video, home to the greatest selection in the city, or so I was told. Our neighborhood seems to hold the kind of balance I have been seeking, it feels like, for years. Tonight though I am going for speed, for the thrill of no hands in the dark, and the strange acclimatizing that happens on returning to a BMX after a summer of riding full-size mountain bikes around Colorado.

Yesterday I watched the neighborhood while we wandered, the sounds of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass resounding over the trees.

There’s a good balance here,” I said, a few Vietnamese restaurants, a few Thai, a donut shop, all filled with people who speak Chinese.”

I know,” she said, it’s like being in Asia again.”

But it’s got what I always wanted,” I said, my point coming together slowly.

A donut shop?” She wasn’t far wrong.

Yes, and a pizza place, and a bar that shows sports and serves tacos and is full of people I can talk to.”

A mixture of Asia and the parts you like of New York,” she said, in a neighborhood near the Pacific, and the park.”

It’s small enough for me to know and foreign enough for me to feel alone,” I didn’t say, but have thought all day.

Tonight I know it’s all these things as I unlock the gate with my bicycle in one hand, and walk in to our courtyard quiet and warm. Half of the apartments are lit and the wind, which howls in from the ocean and down the streets, is held back by their walls. Chelsie the cat is no where in sight, but I know she’ll come visit when the afternoon sun pours in our windows. Her owner often wanders up, after an hour or two, to look for her through our open door. He’s content to have her wander the building, and we likewise, another part of the neighborhood not our own but familiar, and becoming home.

Coming home

Those words, for anyone long removed from the later, are some of the strongest.  They bring instant emotion even on a smaller scale, the words of a father on the phone at the end of the workday.  Yet they can be tainted with nervousness at longer exposures, with an underlying uncertainty of what will have changed, and whether home as we remember it still exists.

These words have a new meaning to me, these past few days.  For the first time in several months they again represent a space of my own, of our own.  We no longer rely on the incredible generosity of our friends and families, whose spare rooms and couches,  pull-out mattresses, aerobeds, and attics have sheltered us so well this summer.  The door to this apartment is opened by keys only we possess, and the bathroom will be cleaned by no one else.  There are drawbacks, the shower head slightly too low, the cabinets that do not close on their own, but they are our problems, and I relish the walk to the hardware store that will fix them.

Having mentioned already the secrets each new house presents, the opportunities to re-establish old patterns and form new habits I will only say that, in their absence, I had much missed my house keys and a place to put them.

City sounds

Some time ago I wrote about smiles as a metric for comparing places. There are other ways, as I noted then, of evaluating cities, a skill I have been practicing. While smiles and population numbers, frequency of restaurants and friendliness to cyclists are counted by their occurrence, many things are noticeable most in absence. Sounds are one such, something I evaluate early on in any relationship, wandering with no iPod or phone, no companion or destination. The true sounds of a place, though, sneak up on the inhabitant until they are integral to the location, and can only be pointed out by their absurdity, by an unaccustomed observer, or by their sudden lack.

In Saitama I would wake to the sounds of campaign trucks carting advertisements and megaphones through voting neighborhoods. They cut through the dawn, blaring promises, slogans, and, most importantly, the candidates name. Like most, I found them harsh, and not likely to induce support. In Shanghai I woke to the call of the repair man pedaling past on his three-wheeled cart, ready to fix or recycle. TV, air conditioner, microwave, washing machine, he would cry, often via recording as well. His laundry list of products fixable was more gentle than the bullish Japanese projection. In terms of bullhorn use, of recordings made predictable by repetition, residential Japan wore worse on the ears, and on the hours of morning sleep.

Shanghai had more to battle with, noises unique and unexpected, incessant and startlingly odd. Many days I woke to sounds of neighbor’s squabbles, leaning out my balcony as they swelled into neighborhood entertainment, with ten to twenty people crowded around yelling their opinion until the police arrived, or did not. Shanghai countered also with construction, on the gigantic scale of skyscraper erection and the personal scale of toilet decimation. These intruded late at night, early in the morning, and all hours in between. With drilling, banging, pounding, yelling, and the occasional rooster placed outside my door, Shanghai took Saitama easily in the noise contest. Yet despite these chaotic interactions I had not yet learned how loud an intrusion neighbors could make, how constant the interruption. Houston taught me that, in a house set far from the street, and made me miss both Shanghai’s cycling recycler and Yono’s pre-paid campaign driver. For the first time I could tell the story of the rooster morning with a face that said, well, it wasn’t so bad.

Now, again alone in a house ten thousand feet up the mountains of Colorado, I wake to other sounds. Wind and birds dominate, the only other constant the fridge’s welcome hum, far louder than I would have guessed from my memories of houses with similar machines. In cities fridges are quiet things, not banging or barking, whizzing by with sirens or yelling at each other. In the wilderness, far removed from other humans, the fridge becomes a loud acknowledgment of electricity’s presence, of machinery and civilization’s reach. Here, the only things louder are the occasional bird crashing into the window, the even rarer ring of the telephone, and the bellows of the cows that graze the hill. The only noise to conquer the house from without comes in the storms that sweep over the mountains and across North Park, lighting everything with haphazard flashes. Their coming is both beautiful and easily anticipated, and they startle not my sleep. It is not a city, and the people nearby are few. Of all things that I notice, the absence of their sounds contrasts the most.

Finding work

He sits easy all day, on a wooden stool barely half a foot high. His arms hang over his knees, back bent sharp in the blue shirt and dirty gray hat. In front of him there is a tub of water, the kind oft used for oil changes, red and plastic. The color has faded mightily but red it is. In the bottom of the water money sparkles, mostly one mao pieces, yi jiao, ten to a kuai. They are silver, and so light that they drift when he puts his hand in. There are a few five mao, wu jiao pieces, larger and gold, but no kuai, no rmb, no yuan, too valuable they are fished out immediately and pocketed. There’s an old bike pump, black with wooden handle, next to the shabby tree that’s one of a series along the road. This isn’t the old part of the city, so the tree is only about ten feet high, not so thick. The dirt around it is covered in spit and grease and mud, no grass. The sign behind him reads 自行车修理, zi xing che xiu li, bicycle repair place, and there are some locks for sale, their cases bound with wire to a peg board. For five kuai he’ll fix a tire, the cost of the patch only a kuai or two. Labor is cheap, there’s another guy two blocks down. This is 上海, Shanghai, and everyone needs their bike fixed. This is 上海 and it’s easy to find people good with their hands.

In Houston I go twelve blocks to find a repair shop, and I am lucky, it is often further, and they charge me twelve dollars. This is Houston, and getting a bicycle fixed isn’t usually an on the way to work necessity.

Interviewing cities

In the transient weather of June we drive west with a mission of some beauty.  We are interviewing cities, searching out a new habitat before a new home.  Houston, which had sheltered us these past months, will do no longer, the daily temperatures too frequently in the triple digits of the Fahrenheit scale.

Interviewing cities is a complex act, easily demonstrated by asking anyone about their favorite, or their home town.  Out come adjectives in streams, beautiful, vibrant, alive, tiny, boring, progressive, hot, leisurely.  Adjectives alone do not suffice, layered over with evaluations of the housing market and job prospects.  Cozy means tiny,” we are told, and quaint means old and possibly broken.”  Oh I love this apartment, I’d stay if I could find work,” says a man moving to Alaska for its prospects.  Well the money is alright,” says another friend of his work, which is a remark as dense as a Craigslist apartment ad.  Translated over a beer and into my ears, it means I’d rather do something else.”

The picture, though, is less shady, as we have chosen June so as to see places at their best.  Exactly as we moved to Houston in September, to feel the heat and welcome the gorgeous winter, so do we visit the west coast now, allowing the warnings of gloomy Februaries to bounce off of us in the sunshine.  This is the best weather yet this year,” we hear, in more than one location, and shrug.  To inhabit a new place is to both accept unknown flaws as they emerge and continue to celebrate the reasons we had for arriving.

You are lucky,” a friend says, it’s not many people who get to chose a place they like to live.”

These words follow us for days on the long stretches of I-5 between Los Angeles and San Francisco, between there and Portland, and back.  On I-80, heading again East to Colorado, we consider them.  I could live anywhere,” we both say, independently, and the truth is out.  There are, we know, excellent reasons for inhabiting every place, as we have heard for Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sacramento and Seattle.  Even Houston, which we have resolutely left, casts a certain charm from it’s position on the Gulf Coast.  Perhaps, with our homeless stature, we grow easier to please, able to imagine ourselves any place with a bed, or without.  Yet in each location our interview follows the same pattern, rigorous.  We scout friends’ apartments, are escorted to bars, restaurants and grocery stores, and then are cut loose, to discover what we will in the longest days of the year.  Walking, car parked and bicycle boxed, we bounce from back streets to river and ocean, from expensive districts to ones even more so.  By interviewing cities we are trying to discover what sort of people they hold, and what beauty.  At the end of most days, footsore and un-fed, we have found people worth watching and people worth meeting, and neighborhoods we’d like another month in, or five.  Though we have limited our search to a few of the nation’s most liberal urban blocks, the feeling which overwhelms us as we drive is of the world’s scale, and the small choices that make up our lives.

Moved here figuring on one year, maybe a couple.  Been here fourteen, and well, yeah, just look at it,” says a friend of a friend.  He speaks of San Francisco, though the echo I hear is of the world, and of living.

Foot traffic

Bike packed I am back to pedestrian travel, moving at the speed of aimless amble rather than that of jogger mom or homeless cart pusher.  I no longer whip past people caught between Land Rover and coffee shop.  Instead, wearing torn jeans, battered sandals and ironic tee I am in their midst, lucky to have less rush propelling my morning and more patience for the dog walkers and the sky mumblers, whether they be bluetooth powered or other radiation fueled.  It is good to be back in Venice, which has become a home base of homelessness for me as it has always been for others.  Nine months ago I sat on these same carpets, steps and couches, my belongings in boxes from China to Houston.

Now, the Houston portion of my adventure complete, I am here again en route to somewhere I have never lived.  Venice welcomes this, her streets lined with vans and Winnebagos that reek of extended occupation. Weather-wise these blocks off the beach are an ideal spot for homelessness, and I watch the wanderers, contemplating the gradual gentrification of Venice and the changes along Rose’s sidewalks these past five years.  There are old men with the air of a previous time trapped in their scraggly beards, and a cereal bar, new and portentous, if not pre-.  The grocery’s windows remain barred and the laundry mat oddly packed mid-morning, signs that while Rose welcomes new company old inhabitants remain.

At an intersection an older women on her bicycle admonishes me as she breaks traffic laws while wearing long gloves and a wide-brimmed hat.  That wasn’t right, horrible I know, shhh,” she says, and I smile.  Telling someone was not in my plans, though it comes to be, and with coffee and bagels balanced and eyes on the surroundings instead of the vehicles I am already a traffic disaster.

Sitting at the cereal bar, several days later, I watch the old Greyhound parked across the street, trailer attached.  It has the sleek lines of the future as seen from the eighties and the curtained windows driven by the last decade’s real estate boom, where prices quintupled as gang violence fell.  The bus’ owner is invisible, though people pass our table in waves, and homeless or not is hard to say.  Is this gradual shift, where Rose loses its gang members and gains dog walkers, as momentous after all?  Fewer gun battles and more Chihuahuas, yet Venice still welcomes those of us with our belongings in our cars, as long as we have friends with more permanent residences.  Breakfast finished, we rise, and, at a clothing store down the street shop but do not buy, the difference between these two levels of homelessness a matter of friendship and attire.

It will be some time still, I think, before Rose resembles Abbot Kinney, and the Shopping Carts for Homeless program, whose product litters the sidewalks, is ironic enough for me to love.

Our time is short

Spring is a time of transitions.  Summer hours are posted on the student center doors, and there is talk of trailer sizes around the dinner table.  The leaves are blooming, but in Houston the humidity is becoming oppressive.  For the first time in months we close our windows despite the shrieking protests made by their tracks, dust-filled and weathered open.  Air conditioning returns, bringing memories of Shanghai’s summers, and the weeks spent entirely indoors.

It is not just Houston, though, that is in transition.  The city’s occupants, or those I have met, are thrust headlong into summer, their collegiate careers ended in a flourish of family and mortarboards.  Watching them, in bars with friends who will soon be distant, I can almost feel experience relaxing me.  As they sit on the floor, those who still have housing hosting those whose who do not, making art in the long afternoons of the comfortably unemployed, I smile, and head to work.  It is a stark reversal of the past few months, where I would linger over coffee in the mornings as they rushed to class or to the studio, prepped presentations or wrote finals.  It is a good exchange we have made, them content and constantly smiling and myself just barely busy, biking to work with no hands and home again for lunch with good company.

The gift of age, then, has descended on me, eight years removed from my own panicked post-graduation summer.  Don’t go home,” I can say with confidence to those debating their direction.  You can go anywhere for a while, and you’ll miss your friends dreadfully.  Stay here and see people until you’re ready to leave.”  The advice isn’t novel, nor particularly family-oriented, but it comes from observation rather than prediction.  You’ll get a job, you’ll still make art,” I offer, seeing nervous fears arise.  Somewhere in the future both are true, though difficult to keep in sight amidst a quest for housing and storage, for interviews and incomes.

Houston is a different city in the summer than the late winter and early spring, which were beyond treasure, and I understand at last some advice that was offered me a month before.  The woman had asked where I was from, the north east, and my opinion of my new home.  I was pleasantly surprised, I said, and am, and remarked at the glory of a February spent in sandals and jeans.  I would be moving on, I told her, but was happy for the months here.

Then it’s time to go,” she said, before the summer gets here.  Leave while you’ve got a good impression.”

We laughed, and two weeks ago some friends took her advice, departing post-haste almost without pulling off their gowns, their lives boxed and packed before the ceremony, apartments emptied and bare.

Yet here I sit, on the floor of my apartment while those who remain tell stories and grow closer over tattoos and adventures, and I am glad of it.  The month may have given me a taste of humid weather, but it has also given me a sense of time and composure, both good things to take from this city on our approaching homeless tour of the west coast.

And of Houston, like my own graduation years before, I still have fond memories.

Lived in bars

They have a good Texas jukebox,” she tells me, of the oldest bar in Houston.  And a table shaped like the state.”  The recommendation is enticing.  Sports are on TV, and a few old-timers at the bar when we wander in from the rain and out again soon after.

It’s the cheapest place in town, which is sad,” I’m told, not immediately sure where the sadness lies, in the bar’s mid-level prices or the fact that spots far dingier, bars with no building at all where the beer in coolers behind the counter and the seats under the stars or smog, have done it no better on cost.  Indoors in this cheapest of establishments a neon sign glows, bulbs along the edges blinking sporadically.  Cocktails, it says, the letters inside a giant curving arrow that points downwards and into a wall.  In the garden out back a five-foot cabbage patch kid is dwarfed by the Kool Aid Man, his body wider than I am tall.

It’s the talk of the town, that’s for sure,” a friend admits, and asks what I think.  It’s like the bars in LA I went to when I made money,” I offer.  She nods knowingly.  Well-designed, staffed by attractive people, a little industrial, big windows onto the street, not too much on the walls, no TVs.

Let’s go somewhere we can watch the game,” we say, after driving to Austin in the afternoon.  At tall wooden tables we stand, the walls open to the air, pitchers half-full, watching a few games, depending on our angle, long into the evening.

I am fond of all of these places in some way, glad they exist and happy to discover them as I re-discover America.  In Asia the very words are a concept, the American bar”.  In Shanghai they have Filipino waitresses, if one is lucky, and Chinese bartenders, and their food is mediocre and expensive.  In Tokyo they are chains, with laminated menus and soda fountains, competing with TGIF rather than local izakayas.

There are jewels everywhere, of course, and we grow fond of them in cycles, with certain groups.  In Omiya for a while there was a bar with exposed metal rafters and a cat who wandered them silently above our heads.  Eventually renovated it lost all character with the cat’s departure, and we followed the example.

Or the rocket ship, a concrete replica of a 1950’s Tom Swift craft, perched oddly atop an Omiya office building, home to a quiet space that held soft jazz and mid-90’s movie posters.  An excellent discovery, only ever occupied by the bartender and a friend of his, content to let us establish ourselves in a curve of the hull our last few months in the country.

There’s a room inside the old vault,” a friend says of a bar that was once a bank.  I am there, one chilly evening a few days later, secure in many ways.  Amid the plush leather furniture it’s easy to forget the bar’s unfinished wood and sawdust feel, or the copious amounts of vomit in the only urinal.

We’ve lived in bars and danced on tables,

Her voice is low and deep, not a thing of ambition but a fact of everywhere, played out in our lives and recommendations to new friends.

Quoted lyrics from Cat Power’s Lived in Bars’ off of 2006’s The Greatest

Biking home after work

Houston is a city built for the automobile.  Without zoning, urban centers are spawned and neglected, grow taller and are abandoned in ever-widening circles, and reclamation of the previously destitute takes far longer than in a city more constrained by geography, a New York, Boston, San Francisco.  In Houston there is no need, as long as the freeways run there is space, somewhere, out along their paths.  There is a certain snobbery, those in the loop’ or out of it, but it is snobbery of the largely young towards the largely indifferent, and little comes of it.

Houston is a city of the oil industry, of NASA, and of doctors.  It is a city of the pickup truck and the SUV, where there seems to be no need to tell people to buy American’ as they already have.  Chevy and GMs woes would be invisible here save for the news, as their products outnumber their Japanese competitors in a fashion unfathomable to a boy from the north east.  This is a city where turn signals are optional, and cyclists given no quarter.

Yet there are cyclists, out among the cars, whispering by the dog walkers and joggers.  In some parts of town they are hip, the fixed-gear crowd, and passing them in whooshes on the way to Montrose’s cafes and restaurants, gear colorful and bags handmade, they could be in Greenpoint, on their way to Whisk & Ladle.  This is the part of Houston that east coast folk mention, along with the weather, when they note how they are pleasantly surprised with their lives in H-town.  These, though, are not Houston’s cyclists.

There are high schoolers with Haros and Mongooses, sitting on their pegs while spinning their handlebars idly at corners, chatting up girls in Catholic-school uniforms while pedaling backwards.  They would not be out of place in Los Angeles, though the girls would be dressed less formally, and the beach far closer.  Neither are these Houston’s cyclists, though they are of the city and, like the fixed-gear riders who push past them as they idle at stop lights, welcome in it.

Houston’s crowd slips through my neighborhood in the early evening hours, their jobs done, faces weathered, minds on their family or friends.  They work their way along the tree-lined blocks on bicycles well-used: old mountain bikes, a younger person’s BMX, a steel road bike.  They are in no hurry, postures relaxed and paths weaving.  I pass them smiling, always happy to see my neighborhood on two wheels.  They smile back, under their mustaches, knowing that we will pass each other again tomorrow.  They will be back far earlier than I will rise, though, at work at seven, cutting grass, trimming bushes, re-painting door frames and blowing leaves off expensive driveways.  They will sit behind my apartment and smoke at lunch, talking in Spanish of lives I grow more curious about each day.  This, then, is the Houston being built beneath and behind the SUV culture of those born to it.  It is a culture of those who cannot or do not own cars, and unlike New York, unlike Tokyo, they are not those who have chosen this method of transportation, but those who have been forced to two wheels.  With time, they too will purchase Ford F150s, white and filled with lawn equipment, and pick up their friends, three to a cab carpooling to the rich neighborhoods of River Oaks, of West University.

Unlike the residents, with their helmets and lights, out for late night exercise, Houston’s other cyclists wheel through darkening neighborhoods as I do, almost impossible to see in the failing light, almost invisible socially.  Drifting through intersections ahead of BMWs and Mercedes they are a danger, and a surprise.  Yet they are also a portent of Houston’s future, as possible on two wheels as four, despite what this city was built for.

Summer ’99

In my memory Ocean City is a pretty lonely place.  Even though I was living with a friend, sharing a house with four other people, and working with a dozen more, the sharpest parts of that summer are ones I spent alone.  This is true of anywhere, and why solo travel is more revealing than group tourism.  Ocean City wasn’t either of those, though.  It was a place to live for a summer that fit all of my requirements and fell into my lap.  A house, they claimed, for little enough, a few blocks from the beach and the lively boardwalk that meant jobs aplenty.  I can still feel the house, that amazing blend of wood and carpet, sand and dust that comes from being near the ocean and open to the weather.  Some houses, too often boarded up against storms or families returning to their northern homes, claimed a different odor, that of disuse and neglect, of age and mildew, with the ocean’s presence as an afterthought, something to be sought out beyond the walls.  Not ours.  On Sparrow Lane, a little two-block curve of road between Bayshore and Robin, both of which ran along the inlet, it was a place that seemed to have no windows or doors, the air constantly suggesting the weather outside.  We added to this with our plethora of fans, seemingly the only furniture college students in the north east ever really own.

Ocean City, on a map, resembles nothing so much as an accident, a mistakenly placed label over a long sliver of land separated from the coast of Maryland and Delaware.  For most of it’s length the city manages no more than four blocks of width, from bay to ocean.  Save for odd protuberances, small peninsulas on the bay-ward side like the one formed by Bayshore and Robin, which stretch west an incredible additional four blocks from Ocean Highway, which, running north to south is two blocks from the boardwalk and, usually, equidistant from the bay.  Like most accidents, Ocean City has the feel of a place clinging to its name, and to life, with the manic rush of a really good party.  It is a vacation town, an east coast boardwalk town, and a college one at that.  Our house, filled with five mostly-impoverished students on break and holding down whatever jobs available, was by no means unique.  The houses on either side were similar, and the trash in the big plastic blue can that sat by the telephone pole demonstrated a diet of Bud Lite and pizza delivery.  A lot of OC survived on late-night pizza, which was good, because two of my roommates made it, often coming home at one or two with a pie they’d prepped for our house while they closed down the kitchen.  I don’t know what it’s like now, that house, with it’s two-storey living room, the stairway winding up one side to a balcony, but if it’s just the same I wouldn’t be surprised, empty in the winter, housing another bunch of hopeful and hopeless students for the summer.

This college vacation town didn’t seem lonely.  With groups of people on each porch, with games of drunken whiffle ball in the street, it had the constant late-night ruckus of a town built on the service industry, where no one got off work until ten o’clock.  It was a place where a night out started when a friend who’s bouncing got on shift at a club, where activities on off-days consisted of going to visit the roommate that worked at the mini-golf range and playing a few rounds gratis.  No, on the surface, or when somebody’s folks came to visit, it didn’t seem lonely at all, always bustling with people, always somebody on their day off going to the beach.  But under that busy summer feel there was a sense of just how empty this place would be, in a few months, and just how little any of the people who had rolled up for the summer with their beach chairs and their shades on really cared.

I used to get up early, around five, to work the breakfast shift, a pretty good job, around fifty dollars for the morning if the place was busy.  Funny to say, since I’d walked into the house at the last minute, the final roommate and the last person to arrive, but I had the best job of the house, which wasn’t as good as it sounds.  I worked at a surf n’ turf place, right on the boardwalk.  Attached to a hotel, and with a pool bar, we only did breakfast and dinner, which was a great gig, and the hotel meant plenty of people, even when the weather sucked and no one wanted to wander the boardwalk before dinner.  When I woke my roommates would be sprawled out from the night, having come home at two with a pie and a sixer and gotten loud right around when I needed to get to bed, which didn’t bother me.  At nineteen going on twenty I’d gone sober for the summer, and was up and unlocking my bike from the porch before the sun.  Looking back those rides are a lot of why Ocean City seems so quiet, so lonely.  Sure someone might be passed out on the lawn next door, but more often the road was empty, the city asleep, and the sun just beginning to climb.  I’d bike down Robin to Bayshore, a couple of blocks, across the highway and out to the boardwalk.  The buildings, mostly one or two storey, were all shuttered, locked and graffitied, concrete shops that in the evening would have tables out slinging barbecue or ice cream, with flocks of people eating, chatting, and roaring off again down the highway.  Two blocks of old wooden beach-side residential, looking the way rental houses look after fifty years of weather and wear, and then two more of modern brick and concrete squares designed to sell something cheap to a whole bunch of people who’d never be back.  Without the crowds, as the sun broke over the horizon, it wasn’t an inviting sight.  I’d always remember my head waitress’s words then, crossing the empty four lanes of the highway on my mountain bike.  In the winter,” she’d say, when we’d talk about how busy the boardwalk seemed, standing outside the restaurant just before opening in the evening, you can walk the length of Ocean Highway and not see a single car.”  At five am it felt like I could do the same, as though the season had changed while I slept.

Then I’d get to the boardwalk, sharing it for ten blocks with the other bikers and joggers, mostly old folk up to see the sunrise on vacation.  I wondered if they knew about the ruckus that went on, a few blocks behind their ocean-view rooms, until just about dawn every night.  I wondered if they realized that the people living on food taken from the shop in which they worked, who washed with towels they stole from their hotel jobs, were just a block or two behind them, passed out on the lawn, having spent their marginal wages on the cheapest beer they could find within walking distance.  And then I’d glide down the boardwalk, riding with no hands, and I’d watch the sunrise over the Atlantic, which, for all the Pacific says they’ve got, is a beautiful sight worth waking up for.  The sun came up on that city like a curtain of orange and then pink and then yellow and then white, pulled up over this pale light blue wash that covered the sky.  Everyone on the boardwalk, all hundred of us or so, spread out over the fifty blocks, would turn and watch, just stand real still in our own little worlds of amazement.  And when it got to a certain height we’d all turn back to our jog or our hotel room, and I’d pull that swinging screen door open and head into the darkened kitchen.

Unpacking and re

With each new home there come a hundred secrets: the ancient heater’s grate just wide enough for bathroom reading collections, the key to a gate never closed.  Like all those before it this apartment has a legacy of ghosts I do not know, people whose decisions painted these walls, put in this air conditioner, removed that socket.  Opening each closet and cupboard merely to discover their shape I can feel them a year from now, gradually giving up their contents to moving boxes.  There are so many versions of myself because there are so many houses to fill and empty.

In a box packed years before by a boy forced out of his home after graduation there lies a set of keys on a simple ring.  No label or familiar shape hints at their purpose, long abandoned and far off.  Vague recollections whisper of campus buildings and security doors, of late-night raids and back entrances.  That party thrown in a squash court, dj and tables smuggled in long after the staff had gone home, complete with disco ball and sock-footed dancers?  One of these keys, quite possibly.  Long evenings spent in offices of theaters now demolished or refurbished?  Perhaps some subset of these keys.  Missing are the electric cart keys, used one glorious night under the hot pursuit of campus security.  Those keys were singled out and passed down, so that the freedom and the danger they presented would remain available long after their original discoverer” had gone.  This ring of nameless keys could be anything, their possibilities suggested only by memories of past abilities long lost.  Perhaps instead they open houses since vacated in cities up and down the eastern seaboard.  Or bicycle locks long made pointless by more dedicated thieves.  Uncertain as to which of these sets of keys he holds, the man tasked with sorting out this box of remnants consigns them to the trash, their history invisible and gone.

The act of settling in is really two separate reconciliations, that of the un-needed and the now necessary.  A swipe card for Shanghai’s metro system, carried for years behind the driver license, is removed and consigned to a folder of remnants.  In its place goes a shoppers card for a grocery store with an unfamiliar name.  Sifting through that folder, that box, I discover remnants kept safe for so long because of the same words.  Maybe one day,” I say, pulling that Shanghai card from my wallet.  It settles beside my Suica from Tokyo, unused since 2003, and my gaijin card, kept as a memento rather than turned over to the authorities as I exited the country.  Sometimes I am smarter, and there is no card, my Octopus from Hong Kong passed on to a friend on his way there.  Bank cards, from Tokyo, Shanghai, Ithaca, airline cards from days of belief in frequent flier programs, bank books from countries where they mean everything, all these pieces of places have traveled with me to this new house, where they are unpacked into a dresser drawer and ignored for months.  In the summer I suspect I will pack them again, adding pieces acquired in Houston, in this apartment that shakes with the neighbors’ joy and fills with the breeze of oncoming storms.  There are badges, pins, free-drink punch cards and gift cards for coffee shops I used to bike to, or walk past, or work near.  These are replaced in my bag by the cardboard cup holders of Rice’s student Coffee house, cycled endlessly for $1 off my ninth drink.  When I leave I am sure there will be one half-punched, and one of the first decisions for the folder in our new home will be whether to keep it.

Houses hold each person’s secrets, comfortable with their inhabitants even for a short while.  The desk I write at, nailed to the wall at window height to provide a standing view, will be removed and the holes plastered over when we leave, the amount of time spent in this corner invisible to the next occupant.  Looking around, at our black chairs and wooden stools, I imagine a sofa, a television, the belongings of previous iterations.  Not particularly unique possessions to consider, yet odd uses there were, I am sure.  In this house I have secreted a pile of foreign currency, not for the financial stability but for the pleasure of discovering it when we depart, a roll of Philippine pesos, Thai baht and Korean won.  Did we pick the same hiding place for cash, those other tenants and I?  Hard to imagine, unless they too favored the spare towels closet.

Where do these choices come from, the places that feel right for each object?  Wanting them by the door I am forever moving the scissors from their home near the fridge.  When asked why I require cutting tools immediately accessible upon entry I have no answer, and they return, grudgingly, to the other drawer.  These curious habits that seem to have no ancestor may indeed be the apartment, or may be tied to some other similar kitchen I have lived in.  That idea appeals, that all these houses, which bear the marks of generations of use may likewise leave echoes on their tenants.  The secrets of each home accumulate in us, so that, moving constantly, we are shaped by the growing trail of places we no longer inhabit.

Transient in all ways

The air is what changes with seasons.  Hot and muggy in the summer, chill and dry in the winter, or hot and dry and cold and wet, the air is more than temperature, it is feel.  Sometimes these seasonal shifts bring unwelcome days spent indoors sheltering.  Sometimes they bring days with scant light, or with an abundance.  At an ultimate tournament in Copenhagen two years ago the sun set near eleven, and players lingered outside long into the evening, marveling at the gift.  In the winter the same climes are less inviting, and so, creatures of this mobile world, we depart for places less socked in with snow and ice.

It is February, the calendar tells me, though the February of my childhood memories bears no relation to these days of lively air, of sun and wind and a hint of rain, off in the distance.  It is not dry, nor hot, neither chilly nor muggy.  For these weeks Houston glows, and we take any excuse for long walks, evening strolls, and afternoons spent lazing with the windows open.  Houston may be horrible in the summer as locals claim, muggy and hot with air still and sitting on the city.  Shanghai is, five almost unbearable summers proved that, and all those with the ability flee to Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines, Europe, North America.

An hour of flying has the carbon footprint of driving for a year, I hear.  Car-less, then, I am still no more removed from our planet’s doom than anyone else.  Let’s move to somewhere we can walk, I say, let’s move somewhere we don’t have to sit in traffic.  Let’s fly somewhere, for vacation, I say.  Let’s fly somewhere to see the world, and the hypocrisy, if true, is staggering.  Reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking a year ago, I marveled at their use of air travel.  Her story of loss, brilliant in its clarity, was for me as much a commentary on air travel, and our shifting abilities.  She speaks of hopping up and down the California coast for dinner, on the PSA, an airline that no longer exists.  Fascinated, I look them up, finding hijackings and crashes, joy and marketing all gradually subsumed into now-bankrupt nationwide carriers.  Her stories, and their $13.50 aisle seats, belong to a different era, where airlines flew when they wanted to, or when they were full, like Chinese mini-busses do now, circling the train stations in search of passengers.

Playing ultimate yesterday with the wind blowing and sun shining, a woman told me of playing on similar days in Northern Europe.  She mentioned living in Korea, and  I told her of the tournament held yearly in Jeju, on practice fields built for the 2002 World Cup, and how the wind there blows off the ocean that lies just over the cliffs.  All our travels are comparable through wind, and all were brought back to us standing amid yesterday’s gusts.

Coming home today, I stand outside and watch this day unfold.  It is weather to bottle, says a friend, to save forever.  We cannot, of course, the only store for days like this is in our memories, which is why we tell stories, and share travel histories.  And I wonder, watching the clouds blow by in huge gusts that reach the ground so gently, whether this too is an era, and we, like Didion, will write stories of it that will astonish in thirty years, sending readers to Wikipedia and to pages kept by those who remember.  Will two hundred dollar flights to an island south of Korea for a weekend of ultimate have the same allure of the PSA, of the common since become impossible?  I consider the carbon footprint, my dislike for the automobile, and that claimed equivalent, and suspect they will.

Not quite yet, though.  A friend is coming, from New York’s ice and snow, to see these magical February Houston days, hopping down for a weekend.  He won’t be riding the smile, and it won’t cost him $13.50, but, if the weather holds and the flight is safe, the belief that our lives are special, and temporary, will be hard to shake.

Moving

In the middle of January I return to Ithaca.  In the last year the flight has shrunk from a day to scant hours and there is no great lag, of time or spirit.  This is good, as I have come to carry heavy things, tables, books, and shelving.  The weather is of a degree I am not familiar with in recent years.  Shanghai freezes on occasion, but mostly it chills and drips, like Tokyo with worse insulation.  Houston, yesterday, touched seventy eight degrees in the scale of F, a temperature completely out of place next to the word January in the mind of a child from New York.  Still, I packed knowing the weather and am not surprised by it, shedding layers as I enter the house and pulling them on again to carry boxes and sofas out to waiting trucks and trailers.

I last saw this house in summer, the lush green of August that allows the land to flourish.  It is a decade, more, since I lived here in the winter, and the hibernation of plants and people is one forgotten thing among many.  The others come to light in boxes and odd drawers that empty into piles: give away, trash, keep and store, keep and take.  The choices for each pile are not immediately obvious as books scrounged out of local sales over years go into a box destined for a similar sale.  This is not a new process, the gradual parceling out of my childhood possessions.  Every visit for the past five years has involved some small measure of re-evaluating and re-packing.  By the end of this visit I will be down to three boxes, four, that are too heavy to fly with.

Yet slimming down my childhood collections is not why I came.  The move is not mine, the boxes left in my closet are a tiny subset of what this house has stored for so long.  The room I left them in is no longer really mine either, though it once was.  The cat that prowls the halls late at night, asking for some favor of doors opened or closed, is not the one that I woke to on school mornings, rough tongue licking my face.  My brother’s dog still ambles around the property, and I watch his aching joints, slow on the snow and ice, wondering what he will think of his new urban home.  For, children grown, my parents have little need of this yard and stream, the rolling hills that surround, and the two cars that maintain this old schoolhouse in the countryside.  Grown myself, neither do I, though all of us take our time, these last few nights, to walk the dog slowly up the hill away from traffic and houses until the stars shine bright.  As we leave with a full trailer, probably my last visit, Orion sits above the roof, each point distinct, a level of crispness we will not have such easy access to again.

We can always drive out of town to see them, my father notes.  And in that sentence is the central point.  In many ways this is a move signaling the end of our automobiles.  It is not the end of the automobile, which will endure for quite some time, entrenched both in popular culture and our own lives.  But it is an example, just one point on a curve of human motion that is swinging back to smaller circles.  Premature, perhaps, to say that the suburbs are dead, that cities like Phoenix and Houston, massive car-driven sprawls, will not continue to thrive.  They will for many years, until the oil runs out, and perhaps beyond.  Many years, I say, meaning 2030, the end-of-oil date in recent BP projections.  Yet we do not pack this house as a means of defeating the automobile, or the mobile society it spawned.  We pack this house, books and artwork, quilts and old costumes, because life is a transient thing.  Despite feelings of permanence, people inhabit each space but briefly, even those who seem to have been here forever, old History professors and groundskeepers, families with ties to the Mayflower.  We are in motion, all of us, and this house which held one family for twenty plus years was a home, but only one, as the term reveals.

In the twelve years since seventeen I have lived in fourteen other rooms, houses, or apartments.  Some of them were but brief stops, some were places where I in turn welcomed scores of visitors over the years.  The house we are packing, built more than a century ago by fathers from the neighborhood to house their children’s school, has held only a handful of families in the years since its repurposing.  We are not the first and will not be the last.  This knowledge makes it easier for me, understanding our place in the structure’s history.  It is the only home my family ever knew, all of us together, and will remain so, my brother and I long since departed.

The new house welcomes, and friends arrive from all over to help settle my parents in.  Some of them recall helping on their earlier move, all those years before, to the countryside from an apartment only a few blocks from this new house.  I remember moving around Shanghai, my last apartment in 08 near enough my first in 04 that I could return to the dumpling shop I’d favored that first freezing winter.  Despite the decades between, my parents remember the neighborhood’s appeal, as I did a world away.  They return to it and are welcomed by a dozen friends who help unload, a good sign after so long.

We are all in motion, grateful for each home in turn.

Airports

That these huge spaces are so frequently written about is unsurprising.  We are a transient people consumed with life and information. Towering buildings granted meaning by our passage yet requiring the sacrifice of hours, airports have come to represent so much of the pause time in our lives.  They are a space not personal, not pre-scheduled or already occupied.  Thus emptied of purpose save the passing through they grant us a moment to analyze and write, to listen to our thoughts and watch others likewise held motionless by their very pursuit of such.  With news televisions, internet, cell service, pay phones, sports bars and large windows they provide plenty of inputs.  They do not leave us isolated, but unable to act.

Yes, we restlessly patrol our Blackberries for urgent problems to resolve.  And there are those of us who simply space out, earbuds in and mind in neutral.  Others pace, restless legs patrolling wide corridors while one hand holds the phone pressed against the jaw, checking again on the project we’ve been preparing to leave for weeks, in case one last moment of nervousness can guarantee success.  We cram our legs up into our seats, leaving nothing touching the floor, no limb to anchor us to this city we are about to depart as we confide in family members we have just left, or will soon see.  And we drink, relaxing in darkened caves away from the ever-present fluorescents and their helpfully automated voices reminding us that the automated walkway is coming to an end, that the alert level is orange, that our belongings are for handling by us alone.

The airport is an odd space for us, once through the security check, cut off from those who came to wish us farewell but still here, not yet separated by time zone or ocean.  It is a space no one wishes for interactions in, save perhaps that brief farewell or hello, which we prefer at curbside, stepping into a vehicle that can escort us from the lonely halls.  We hope for a speedy passage through, minimal time in baggage claim, in ticketing, going through security, yet we arrive with hours to spare, ensuring those moments of contemplation at the gate.

This gift of mental peace and clarity, these unclaimed, unscheduled half hours are the true miracle of airports, of this giant network we have built.  So it is a good sign then to see how much writing they produce, how much thought, how many compassionate phone calls checking in on loved ones.

Now if there were such moments of unclaimed quiet in the progress of our daily lives, what would we contemplate, what would be produced in those hours removed from the world yet enmeshed in its workings?

Cabin air

The view is panoramic.  Living in dense urban environments, I had forgotten the pleasure of watching weather patterns approach or sweep past.  Snow lingers on a hill several miles away, the dense air and thick gray clouds my indication.  On the other side of the valley the sun strikes a forest, and the plumes of melting snow that rise in the wind dwarf the trees themselves.  Blanching down they strike, these huge shafts of light, separating shadow and not across wide swaths of forest and field.

I have forgotten, my mind says, and should be awed by the vantage point afforded me from this cabin in the mountains of Colorado, two hours from the city I have been guesting in.  Skiing up the mile to its door, from the end of the county road where we left the jeep pulled over in a turn-out and locked to wait for our return, I should be awed by the landscape. Instead I am stuck trying to breathe.  There is majesty in the landscape, and there is the pain of my nose as it freezes.  These are competing senses, although both can be described with awe.  Pushing up the final hill I can at last appreciate the expanse of the view finally, both poles stuck in the snow. The dogs can too, having had their run. They are ready to head inside for warmth and the cabin’s restraint of the wind that tugs and pulls and mostly chills.

A map of the United States is a curious thing.  Without an overlay of population or a satellite picture of lights at night there is no sense of exactly how empty, exactly how open is the western expanse.  With one though there seems to be a huge gap, as though the progress westward had not been completed, as though humanity simply leapt towards the west coast.  Half of this country is truly empty in a way hard to remember for a boy from the east coast who has spent the past seven years in Asian metropolises of Tokyo and Shanghai.  In some ways this expanse of snow-swept reservoirs and mountains is overwhelming, something to be acknowledged and accepted rather than interwoven with my images of the wide world.  Over and over I wonder at the people who live up here, not visitors or retirees but children who play over these hills in their youth and herd cattle across them as teenagers, who build houses under the auspice of construction companies founded in these small towns by their uncles or fathers.  I can not comprehend the sense of ordinary they must have for these views, and, on the other end, how trapped they would have felt in Shanghai these past five years, watching the polluted air curtain off the city, particulate walls of white blocking the view after a half dozen blocks.  Would they feel as cut off and alone there as I do now, looking out at the snowstorms almost upon us and yet still ten miles to the south?

Somehow I doubt it, myself a child of the wilderness of the north east, which remains, despite the brilliance of its representation from satellite.  My house, the house my parents are selling even now, is one from which the stars can be seen.  Perhaps not with the same clarity as here, up nine thousand feet from the level of the sea. Yet from a hill in Lansing they are visible with the eye in a fashion impossible to imagine for a child of the sprawl of Yokohama-Tokyo-Chiba-Saitama.  As I type that my memory gives it lie, remembering walking home one night from the last train in Kawagoe, two thirty in the morning as I crossed a river, walking on the bridge’s wide rail above the water’s concrete bed.  The stars shone bright that night, one of summer’s warmest.  Here, in the dry height of Colorado, on the shortest days of the year, they do again, save when obscured by blowing snow.

It is peaceful here, and many things explain themselves to my brain in the ample time it has to consider ideas, bereft of internet and telephony.  With only word games and the printed page to occupy us we construct, knitting and writing, cooking and fire-building, until the dark has worn us down, and the idea of waking with the sun has more to offer than remaining upright.  These four days at the end of two thousand eight are respite from the constant chase of our urban lives, even from the holiday cheer of our visit to Colorado.  They are a chance, too rare and too often filled with gasps, to breathe deep and watch the way weather moves, and the speed with which we are overtaken.

Much of this article is informed by a view of the Earth at night from space, widely available on the internet.  One of the best views of it can be found in Google Earth, by checking the layer Earth City Lights” under NASA in the Gallery section of the Layers sidebar.

Future positions

Part of the joy of travel, of moving, is learning a new common.  Moving to Shanghai and finding that bicycle traffic exceeds car.  Living there long enough to watch car start to gain, and the massive parking problem that change creates.  Moving to Houston and finding cars a minority, compared to SUVs, and the unique kind of common created by such large vehicles.  Watching young siblings of a friend play upon their parked vehicle, it affording an easier climb and better view than the purpose-built play structure in the yard.  Learning to navigate each one, until it is time to move on again, and the new place likewise surprises, lacking trains, or cars, or electric bicycles.  Realizing that what is comfortable now is not the original, but an amalgamation of each previous situation.

So often future predictions, or visions of such, are simply the application of what is already common in one place to another, with the twist of local restrictions or desires.  Cellphones are going to incorporate electronic payment systems, claims one, having been to Japan.  Transit cards will become electronic, removing the need to swipe a MetroCard in New York through the magnetic reader, claims another, having seen Hong Kong, or London, or Shanghai, or Tokyo, or…  Everyone will have a car, says the proud new Buick owner in Shanghai, knowing America.  Discerning between the potential and the possible, the future coming and the present not yet arrived, becomes an art of guessing what people want, what local infrastructure will support.

In every projection too there is the bias of personal desire.  Thus comes the vision of a wind-powered future from those with large investments in windmills.  Likewise those building massive databases of human activity suddenly see a future where every item of identification communicates location.  Passport, cell phone, car keys, payment cards, check.  There are those who seek support for admirable visions of electronic automobiles spread wide over the landscape, asking for them to be built by those who for the past seventy years have opposed such infrastructure.  But these are not the only futures built around the personal desires of those who espouse them.  There are the dreams of authors, in whose projections worlds overcrowded, over-governed, and over-built compete with those of space-faring societies that have escaped the resource limits of a single planet, of artificial intelligences that remove burdens of daily labor, and of a variety of governments that cater to a mobile population. These are all visions of a future coming, of a world we do not inhabit but should, or will, or might soon.

The beauty of these views is not that any one is perfect, or correct, or that any of them are.  The joy of learning what is common in a new place is finding fresh tools for a personal projection of what the future will hold, of where the world could be.  Because much of the future is made up of people, and the people are made up of what they imagine and desire, what they learn and acquire.  This message is paraded around by consumer advocacy groups, by giant corporations, by friends and neighbors in a variety of forms, and is true in all of them, if slightly minimized.  For the future is not a small thing, one life is not a small thing.  On moving to Japan, seven years ago, and being shown to an apartment smaller than any of the dorm rooms I had occupied the four years prior, being forced to revisit my needs and possessions, I found roommates, colleagues, friends in similar situations.

I like the way it’s done here,” they kept saying.  About refrigerators small enough to tuck into corners that then required more frequent re-filling, from similarly smaller shops within walking distance.  About beds that were rolled up and put away in closets in the mornings to provide space for a desk and a sense of cleanliness.  About balconies on every house, for drying clothing and watching Mt. Fuji in the evening.  All these people, each moved to a new location, each discovering that what was common in Tokyo, in Saitama, was something they could live with, appreciated, and would incorporate, if able, into their own future.

There are stories like this from everywhere I have ever lived, and they blur together into nothing more than personal history, exploration and discovery.  They provide the tapestry though, the background of things I know to be common, somewhere, and can easily apply to my vision of a future.

And so, on a sunny November day in Houston I ride my tiny bicycle down tree-lined streets, arms covered in a hoodie purchased in Shanghai for its utility against very similar weather on my way to an apartment fueled only by electricity, generated mainly from wind and solar sources.   I carry a bag hand-made in Philadelphia, which holds a computer made in Taiwan and China.  And while such a listing can be displayed as a consumer badge, and is, it is also a vision of the future, of my plan for it.  The world changes every day, and the older we get the faster it seems to go, a function of both personal aging and of the era we were born to.  There are crisis and inventions, as there have always been, and our future is probably none of the grand predictions, none of the brilliant novels or simple transpositions.  The future will probably be as fragmented as today, with massive cars and extreme poverty, with starvation and luxury ocean liners.  Our choice is what common we are aiming for, what personal collection of necessary and desirable we hold dear enough to work for.

So here I am, age twenty nine, transporting myself by bicycle and airplane, communicating with laptop, cell phone and postal service, learning to appreciate and cook food common to my new location.  Uncertain whether any of these is perfect; imagining a future finely balanced out of all the visions I have seen.

Home again

Four years later, the house looks much the same.  There are numerous improvements, small patches and big repairs, redecorations and removed annoyances, but most of it remains.  Fewer trees in some directions and more in others.  The second red maple is almost as tall as the first, though not as full.  The white trees are almost gone, though a new one rises at the edge of the dog yard.  A huge stand of cottonwoods at the end of the lawn pitched over in the winter, the base eaten away by the creek.  The dog is older, a golden retriever going silver at the end of his life.  He sleeps most days on the grass outside the front door, content to be left alone in the sun.  The cat, a wild kitten in two thousand four, is a mature hunter, constantly depositing baby squirrels, mice, and birds on the back porch as trophies.  The neighborhood, blocked by August’s rich foliage, is much the same too, farm houses that have stood for a hundred years easily enduring my lifetime.

As always, the fast changing part is the people.  Marriages, births, deaths, and movings on.  Most of the people I knew haven’t lived here in a decade, the same as myself.  Yet at every corner I remember their lives.  A childhood playmate, a middle school battery mate, a teacher I had in high school.  Their houses, if not the people themselves, remind me of the place I lived, and the person I was.  Like Shanghai had begun to be, Lansing and Ithaca are filled with memories.

I take a longer route down to the inlet park, purely for the view, and remember leaning out of windows waving as others drove me similarly.  The choice is slightly dramatic, hundreds of other trips passed this way with little to recall them to me.  In that memory are people long gone, both from me and from this planet, and the air, hot at the end of August but with the slightest inkling of fall, is similar.  We were young, or younger, and still only half sure how brief our time would be.  A decade later I smile and admire the view our parents moved here after seeing.  Their choice is still a good one.

My friends are long gone, yet they return.  Like the rock that was a planet once, our orbits are eccentric, our distance from each other and this valley varies.  So on this August afternoon I find myself playing frisbee with one of my oldest friends, looking out at the inlet between points.  Across the way is a set of trees I used to climb in on Saturdays, at an age older than the children that inhabit them currently.  Walking out along the horizontal branches, balanced above the water, I would watch this shore, its flat green grass and jogging trails.

A week later I return, not to these fields or inlet but to the city, to the hills surrounding it.  Another friend, as if from the afternoon’s damp air, appears.   Four years are suddenly bridged, I am in for a single night, he only three, and both of us then away again.  Air travel grants the most mysterious meetings, Philadelphia Houston Massachusetts Hawaii and at the crossing point of those two paths our home town, for a beer at a bar far older than either of us.

Many things have changed, it’s true, and heading back is often deceiving.  The mall looks outwardly the same but contains so few stores half is roped off in the evening.  My parents house, the only one I ever knew, is fixed mostly for a move.  The people, though, who swing far out into seas and over them, who marry dance and die, they are not at such remove as that, and can occasionally be brought back.

Squirrel tricks

There are two important parts of a home.  Having one, and what’s outside of it.  The saddest part of leaving Tokyo was not the actual leaving, but abandoning that home.  Knowing that the next time I landed in Narita two hours of train would not bring me to my doorstep makes me want to move back even now, five long years gone.  The loss of a home means not being able to welcome people to a foreign country, to an environment they know nothing about.  Finding friends at the train station, mouths agape, and leading them through winding streets to a balcony all our own is a joy that leaves uneasily.

In Shanghai these past years we welcomed guests through from all parts of the globe, travelers and those seeking homes of their own.  Some for weeks, some for scant hours until their flight out or train inwards. Simply having a space, being able to offer shelter and retreat to those far from theirs, rewards each month’s rent.  Feeling comfortable in a foreign place, be it Manhattan or Los Angeles, because someone has a place we can return to, has value without equal.

Yet it is the second aspect that draws me forward, into new cities and out of old comforts.  Sitting now facing down Rice’s manicured lawns, watching the trees sway outstretched in the sun, I am glad again of that pull.  Ensconced again in a city I was not born to the greatest gift is in each morning’s presentation of the world outside: the squirrel highway that runs past my window.  Gifts like these drive my apartment hunting mind.  Interior quality is of course preferred, but the essentials lie in window light, in vantage point, in relative location.

Like with all things, luck is of the greatest assistance.  A friend whose landlord owns another place, a relative who owns a building, a teammate’s relocation, these coincidences cannot be paid for, nor planned.  Still, their results can be evaluated by these same desires; like all homes they compete primarily on what can I walk to, what can I see.  These questions applied to the Saitama apartment of years before give out answers that reinforce my desire to return: an express stop on the Saikyo line and Mt. Fuji.  Those two things, one walkable, one seen, coupled with the ability to grant others a base from which to visit Japan, outweighed all negatives of expense and space.  In Shanghai other calculations won, usually the desire for an easy walk to anywhere overcoming view.  Too often in cities location becomes the dominant demand, the singular benefit of housing.  Too rarely does the view reward.  The squirrel highway does, with its multiple levels and fast-paced travelers.

On the second floor in a residential neighborhood, an apartment-wide swath of windows gives me panoramic views.  They are, for the most part, of trees and houses with limited sky.  I am sure they have not, despite their excellent light, entertained previous residents so much.  The property line, just behind my apartment, is demarcated by a wooden fence, some four meters tall, topped with a flat rail.  Another meter above it and parallel runs the phone line, thick tubed and taunt.  Slightly above that runs the power and cable, a weave of thinner wire and rubber that only the truly harried consider.  The top of the fence sits just above the baseline of my windows, the highest wires just below their top.  When traffic is heavy, lane changes are frequent, with those following the phone cabling often dropping down to the fence before continuing.  This highway supports a robust traffic in acorns, smaller nuts, and random bits of fruit, as well as the occasional high-speed chase.

The squirrel’s gift of full-field vision minimizes accidents, allowing for a more rapid pace than is perhaps strictly recommended at such a height.  The acrobatics involved in switching lanes are of an utterly untrained nature, and vary from the simple jump-and-hope to the more delicate hang-and-reach.  The traffic does not show any particular commuter pattern, lacking the to work and home again flows of human highways nearby.  Instead travelers scamper back and forth at all hours, often left and then right again in such quick succession that little, if anything, can have been accomplished on the tree just out of view at the edge of my property.  Perhaps the individuals are merely attempting to touch all the surfaces in a certain order and at a certain pace.  This would explain the oft-observed bound up onto the fence, sprint along its top, leap for the tree, run up and out a branch, spring for the telephone pole and dash back along the cabling to some invisible destination.

While the easy walk to campus and the convenience of other human habitats is not to be overlooked, it is safe to say that my favorite feature of this new home is the constant goings-on that occur just behind it, elevated perfectly to fit inside my wide bank of windows.  I appreciate the fence builder in a wonderful way.  The power company’s decision seems incredibly coherent, in contrast to so many of the random spools of wire nailed to posts and house corners throughout my neighborhood.  They were building a highway for squirrels, keeping them off the ground in a high-traffic area.

The best moments of this view come at off-peak hours.  While I sat quietly one September afternoon, a squirrel paused on the fence’s top board.  In no hurry he settled down, belly flat upon the wide wood.  And then, just to check, he dangled his legs and arms off of the side, paws swinging slightly in the sunlight.  Eyes watchful he lay there for a minute or more, before hopping up and sprinting off.  After several weeks of squirrel observation I laughed, amused at his peculiar antics, and returned to my work.

A few moments later motion again drew my eye, this time to the telephone line.  He was back, wiser and higher.  A moment later, in the middle of the cable’s span, he flopped down on his belly, legs out and swaying.  He lasted three minutes before another squirrel’s appearance in the tree made him scamper away.  Embarrassed to be caught relaxing in the middle of a work day.  Like myself, in so many ways, always watching this squirrel highway.

Settling into weather

With fear comes many things.

The weather report beckons doom for my new home, in most of a half-dozen computer-generated predictions.  Then in all of them.  In a car, unfortunately, on the way to breakfast, the gas station is overwhelmed with drivers, spilling onto the road and disrupting traffic.

The sky is blue, with small cloudlets adrift in no discernible pattern.  I startle slightly at the earnest measures.  Evacuation measures engulf entire districts, and new-found friends.  Seven years previous, just before America’s transformation, I stood on the balcony of my new home, trying to see Fuji through the sideways rain.  The tsunami brought flooding and broken umbrellas to Saitama, far inland of the sea, and damage I was not equipped to assess elsewhere.  With the mass of suited commuters I huddled behind vending machines on the Saikyo’s elevated platform, drenched through, until later that evening I found a windbreaker and rain pants to cover work’s requisite tie and slacks.

In the evening of the coming storm we help piling furniture into pools, stashing barbecues indoors and securing all signs of outdoor living.  Our own house, small and box-like in nature, had already been prepared, books moved away from windows and covered lest they break, things unplugged for the inevitable power lapse, computer backed up and bicycle brought indoors.

Food, cash, gas, these things I had gathered either inadequately or not at all, instead relying on other’s preparations, on those who took the week’s worth of prognosticating in the utterly serious fashion it was meant.  The concept of such informational deluge, made real the night of the storm through all-hours television and then battery-powered-radio coverage, overwhelms my senses and I flee to fiction, to small personal tasks, and then to yard work, to food preparation and consumption.  I am sheltered by those who have but just met me, and appreciate their kindness even as I am stunned by their dedication.

Yes, the purpose of the opening statement is to clarify the outcomes, not to decry the causes.  In a storm severe enough to shatter trees, windows and roadways, I remained safe not because I saw the needless fear in the advisory messages, but due to the kindness of those who appreciated the severity of the warnings so direly delivered.

As for my new home, I am proud of its structural integrity and admire the wood floors and light.  As for my new city, I appreciate the hospitality and am not frightened by the news or weather.  The year will speed past I am sure, three weeks already in more like a moment, and be gone.  There will be smaller victories and larger lessons, but post natural destruction I can not avoid the memories of that first week in Saitama and the weather’s similarly unexpected impact.  Likewise I find us here glorying in the first day of clear skies, welcoming in the autumn’s long afternoon with relieved grins after long travels and trying arrivals.

Flying home

Again thirty thousand feet up, on a flight of a length that will become rarer.  Having said goodbye to friends and roommates, business contacts and those who welcomed me into Shanghai five years ago, I am on my way home.

The trip will not be short, though this flight, eleven hours of China Eastern hospitality, is about as quickly as one can swap China for the lower forty eight.  Yet, having leapt across the Pacific in a binge of time travel, I will not continue east apace.  I will drift, this evening into a sports bar in Santa Monica, to watch the Cardinals and meet old friends.  I will slow my travels gradually, from plane to taxi to bicycle to, at last, sandal-clad shuffle.  At this pace my heart may have time to catch up to my body, at least enough to be of use.  Right now it is torn between a woman in the mountains of Colorado and a friend walking away from the intersection of Jianguo Lu and Yueyang Lu.  It is torn between where I am going and where I have been, on a scale rare but not unique in my memory.  I struggle to  remember leaving Shanghai the first time, to Thailand and then the US in two thousand four, all belongings likewise shipped or abandoned.  I barely remember those months at home, selling my father’s collections on eBay for money eventually used to return, post election, to Shanghai.

Today’s sense of confusion, loss, and singular aloneness does not echo that transition.  The flight that comes back to me here in 41G, surrounded by sleeping Chinese and Americans, is the flight from Tokyo to Shanghai on August eighteenth, two thousand three.  The boy on that flight cried often, for lovers, friends and the comfort of the life he had left.  The sharpest memory, of standing on the observation deck at Narita, thankfully not alone, watching the incoming planes prior to my own boarding, brings sadness even yet.  Saying goodbye today is like that, though in many ways it will never be so permanent.  Most of my friends in Japan are still there, people I see rarely and think of often.  Most of my friends from Shanghai are American or there frequently, and reunions will not be as costly.  In some ways the Shanghai I have lived for the past five years is coming with me to America, somewhere.  Though we won’t be roommates, and contact will become a celebration rather than a morning necessity, it will be more than I have with the life I lived from September seventh, two thousand one until that August afternoon two years later.

Shanghai was, in many ways, a second chance to make something lasting out of a new country.  Sitting here, excited for the future but saddened by the exit, I know I have done that. And it’s a reminder, to all the friends I have scattered across the world: Eventually I’ll have another house to visit, another couch to crash on.  For the next few weeks though I’ll be the one showing up, knocking on doors and looking for a place to sleep.

Personal geographic

Memories lie dormant all over this city. In Fuxing park, after years away, they return suddenly. A February afternoon, jacket collar up against the wind, slips over me despite the heat of May. A face I haven’t pictured in years comes back instantly, bringing with it hand-holding and small pleasantries I had thought ashes of personal history.

They fade, says a rumor of memories, are dulled by repetition and become faint traces barely accessible with conscious effort. This is true, in some way, as oft-recalled scenes are now at least part composition, part invention, rather than their original fact. Graduation day’s weather, easily confirmable through photographs and weather sites, is reassuringly mapped onto memories of that day. I do not believe I have any real ability to visualize the clouds, if clouds there were, puffy and scattered. Perhaps seeing the hill, the view of the lake through the trees would suddenly snap the sky into focus in my mind. Perhaps not, and that amphitheater would instead evoke other days, as the layers of personal history are deep there, the days set upon one another like palimpsests.

A small town can not hold as many of these ambushes. Each place has been too frequently visited to retain only a single moment. No place has been forgotten for long enough to shock. Thinking this I remember a bridge and a long-dead friend perched upon it’s girders, slung below the road surface yet high above the gorge. It is a place I haven’t visited in a decade, and I am chill at the memory. No, these mental ties to geography do not require size, not always.

Barefoot now and throwing a frisbee in the late afternoon sun amid a flock of kites the shape of eagles, my memories are of another evening, drinks outdoors in the garden visible beyond a hedge. The friends of that evening are not dead, thankfully, just far away. They have long since relocated to London, to Australia Boston New York Maine Hawaii Hong Kong, and they are only three people. Years gone now, my routine is of passing around this park but never through. The memories lie unmentioned, untouched, with their participants scattered.

Yet the size of a place does enable this forgetting, allowing frequented pathways to be forgotten by a change of job, a move several blocks north. A dumpling shop on Jianguo Lu closes for May holiday, three days. The owner purchases new chairs and tables in the interim. A crazy night there comes back to me, from years before at three am. Another expat in a three-piece suit and too drunk to see, ranting about something, his face familiar but name unknown. The winter of 03, perhaps. The day is not clear, the need for dumplings at such an hour even less so. Only that face, the suit, and the hour return upon re-entering this recently redecorated tiny restaurant.

Rooftops, carts, and cats

The streets of Hong Kong are packed with delivery motion. As Manhattan swirls at three am, so does Sheung Wan bustle in the morning as dried fish in vast quantities is hauled off trucks by men with giant metal hooks. At break time they leave these implements carelessly in giant bags of rice, handles up, points embedded in the compacted mush. Each sack in turn is flung from truck to cart, bundled up into a store, frontless, wares open to the air. Each bag is sliced open and dumped into bins for later measurement again, into smaller bags individually carried home. So many stairs in this city, so much vertical travel, and all of these homes furnished, all of these kitchens filled, all of this waste removed. What of this massive expenditure every day, to carry vegetables home to supper? The cost of yet another tower does not include this.

The carts themselves, ubiquitous on the streets, will be tied to poles at the day’s slackening, around three. Their metal handles, circular and hollow, will fold down to the bed, compacting the entire device into a rectangle of green steel with four blue wheels. The wheels are fixed. These carts are so basic, so mass-produced, and so communal that they have neither names, nor dates, nor manufacturer’s brand. The flat slats of metal that form their weight-supporting base seem not to mind the pounding of sacks tossed from trucks, the blue wheels seem not to heed the curbs they are perpetually banged into up and over. At least one per shop, the carts outnumber the trucks, themselves a half-dozen, most with Japanese engines. There are, later in the evening, twenty carts scattered around unoccupied and seeminly unowned on this three-block stretch. A sense of public space pervades this city, which has so little that all must be carefully shared.

In a park near Lan Kwai Fong a trio of ladies rehearses a dance routine at mid-morning, before the rush of lunch and smokers, after the street sweepers have cleared the broken bottles away.

From our Sheung Wan rooftop the cats seem multitude. They scale the construction site, they swarm the streets and fences, alleys. This vantage point reveals their secret paths, startles one with their numbers, the city below in constant motion. Strange too, as most of the cats I find on the ground spend large periods of time hunkered down beneath some shade. It is early April and Hong Kong is beginning to sweat. We lie on the roof top at night, assailed by mosquitos, in gym shorts, barefoot and considering the skyline. Rooftops like this are a gift, sitting as it does above an apartment that barely slept five, all laid out next to each other, last November. The roof top triples the floor space. The roof top raises the ceilings to the clouds.

Which are themselves coming down. The air here is getting worse, the view shorter than it used to be. So they tell me, people everywhere during these two weeks. So I can see from my vantage point, high above Sheung Wan and watching. The air may indeed be getting worse, smog pouring out of Shenzhen, Guangzhou, all of the motherland to the west. Hong Kong remains the most beautiful city I know of, a mass of thin towers and green peaks that slide into the water in a confusion of street vendors and colonial organization. For two weeks in April it is a gracious host to me, a peaceful place of feline grace and hand-pushed cargo transport, and I am glad of the hospitality.

Shared eyes

They make out frantically, in the back of the taxi, her head on his lap bent back. The abandon does not startle their driver, who weaves through Shanghai’s traffic without pause. The man, baseball hat on, looks up briefly as I slip past on my scooter. The woman, face hidden in the dark of seven pm, does not move; her head is back, mouth up in an imagined gasp for air. He, window again free of my shadow, dives down to her waiting lips in my rear view. Where are they going, this couple so enraptured on Tuesday? Where have they been?

Shanghai, like any where, shifts with the lives its people. Like any people, we shift when caught up in each other. A cold ride home through quickly darkening streets becomes a soft journey barely remembered when not alone. It becomes a passel of stories swapped over the wind and horns, becomes the wait for an end that is glorious in anticipation. Likewise, old haunts long since grown repetitious suddenly provide new afternoons of shared wandering.

A conference center never finished stands several blocks south of Zhaojiabang. First discovered in two thousand three while wandering on lunch breaks from an elementary school nearby it is a mystery of Shanghai, of the Asian Financial Crisis, of some bankruptcy somewhere. Its brick and concrete structure sits astride the terminus of Feng Lin Lu and imparts a strange majesty to this neighborhood, still trapped in the repetitive architecture of China’s 70s and 80s, rows of short squat flats all the same. The marbled-bodied friezes on the front, strangely fixed in place before the windows, floors, and walls, which were never completed, stare out at the tree-lined avenue. A massive gate, likewise roofed in granite long before the arch was framed completely, has been walled off with blue corrugated metal opened only occasionally by the old man who lives in this complex now alone. There is no mention of the plan, intentions, builder, or the once-imagined grandeur save for a model, tucked away in a section of the surrounding construction wall, it’s glass window originally set up to inspire passers-by and now covered by sheet metal. Sneaking through the old man’s room it becomes visible from an end, an odd angle above and behind the complex. In it the ring buildings are five stories high and roofed with peaks rather than the flat structures of skeletal concrete they remain. The central hotel towers fifteen floors above the surrounding streets, it’s intricate curved entrance wide enough to drive up, it’s elevators’ glassy fronts ascending the building’s outer face, gradually rising out of the courtyard to give a view of Xuhui, of Shanghai.

This building, discovered years ago, is wrecked in the fall of two thousand seven, and only the desire to show another, to be somewhere together, to share this city, brings me back to see it crumble. Four years on the view through fresh eyes returns the joy of discovery to mine. It is two years since I climbed through the complex one Sunday in January with a friend, discussing girls and the chances of surviving them while transposing lives (his) to America. The circle is not lost on me, watching the wrecking crew pillage this gigantic complex, imagining so many parts of the life I have built here come crumbling down in that shudder, this shake. Construction in Shanghai is immediate, constant, and temporary. As if in proof of time’s passing buildings are removed from my life, buildings that contained my history here. The noodle shop of Friday lunches in two thousand three has been boarded up for years, the Out of Africa poster that hung behind the tv leans up against the half-obscured window, a small reminder to old customers. The dates I went there on are likewise lost, only peeking in to my memory occasionally as I pass in the dusk of evening, coming home from Cotton’s, from work, from intoxicating conversation.

In Hongqiao, in two thousand four, there was a noodle shop with a wooden door, carved, eight feet high and four across, of a weight made light by hinges yet massive to the touch. Often, in the cold of February, a boy and girl would sit ensconced behind it, neither entirely familiar with the menu, with the street, with each other, or with the city. They slept in an apartment furnished yet made bare by the cold and their caution, on a street whose name neither would remember. Still strung with Christmas lights Hongqiao’s streets felt empty even when packed with the rush of office workers heading home.

Writing a letter in a cafe near there in the fall of oh seven, the streets of Hongqiao have lost their mystery, and I have joined the work day lunch break.  I can no longer find that door. Has New York shifted this much in four years? Is it Shanghai that changes, or the people, or are they both the same?

I scooter up and down Fuxing, sometimes alone, sometimes not, learning new places, noticing new houses, which are often old houses suddenly discovered behind walls and trees long sheltered. Shanghai changes, as does my focus, and both of us are better for it.

On the first Sunday in December the view in all directions fades into white as the pollution descends low and encapsulates everything, like snow, cutting off sound. On Fuxing, kept warm by arms wrapped around me and slipping through the dust into invisibility, the reason I am leaving - this strangling air - strikes us both as gorgeous, and Shanghai is again a city of picturesque memory.

Fall growth

With the typhoon, everything swings about. Trees sway, leaves begin to age, droop, and fall. Seasons happen suddenly, and the heat is gone. Wind whistles through windows that have been open for months with barely a murmur.

Shanghai, though not on the sea, is of it. Buffeted by storms brewed far south and carried by currents to sweep clean the stick of summer, the city sheds the lingering stench of sweating millions. Change, like the weather, happens overnight.

Leg warmers overtake the thin netting of summer nylons, and Shanghai’s population remembers garments lost for months amid closets unopened. Coats, scarves, hats that will all become mandatory within months are suddenly fashion, perched rakishly atop cycling heads.

I spend days out of doors, never alone in the celebration. Fall, unlike Spring, is the temporary, a celebration of what is to go, rather than to come. A friend’s mantra from months back suddenly becomes a daily belief, suddenly supports a never-ending grin.

Get it while you’ve got it.”

With a gentle step and a certain pause for admiration Shanghai does, and we do.

Neighborhoods

A boy once believed that no matter how far he went, he’d still be where he was from. That this defining character set would tie him to others, to where he’d grown up, to the person that he’d grown into. Years later does he still believe these things? That the love of fall on the east coast of the United States is an overwhelming sign of good taste, and that fixing a car late at night in driving snow represents the pinnacle of perseverance? Would he still dismiss those from further afield, as though their homes hadn’t provided similar lessons?

In my mind he would not. He has grown well, aged into a person of a different place. We are no longer close, this boy and I, partially because I no longer live on the east coast of the United States. Partially because I no longer live in the United States. Partially because, as the world grows, and we into it, such qualities shrink. They shrink not in difficulty, or beauty, but in scope. Fixing a car in driving snow becomes a challenge of location. Fixing a car in the desert’s blazing sun with no habitation for dozens of miles matches it, and that recognition changes the original pride.

We are not where we are from, yet knowledge of that place explains us.

As does the sense of scope. Meeting an unknown friend in the chill heat of a Shanghai apartment where the walls seep cold into the night as the heater pumps out dry air filled with warmth, our shared location becomes an isolating factor.

Those two are from Ithaca.”

As though that makes us the same. As though we’re both really from the same place. As though we shared the same city, and through it clothes, manner, dress. We do not. Because it is not just countries that are too large to possibly contain their population with the single adjective allowed them in popular humor.

Because countries have directions, and cities neighborhoods.

Yueyang lu is tree-lined, residential, until the bars. Yongjia lu has some shops, some restaurants, and more trees. Couples walk hand in hand and boys chase each other in and out of the school nearby. Guards watch both, and mingle in front of the Painting Institute, huddle inside their huts in chilly weather, and smoke incessantly to relieve the mind-numbing passage of time. I whisper through it in the mornings, past the fleets of women and men with their child on the rear of their bicycle for the morning lift to school before they head on to work. I slip up Yongjia, heading west, across Wulumuqi lu, past the brief block of Anting lu, to Hengshan’s bustling cacophony, busses and taxis competing with the whistle of a half-dozen crossing guards watching the five roads carefully for signs of lawlessness. Their stares and squawking whistles slap me awake, and I pause before pushing on to Gao’an, and then left up Kangping. This is the border of my neighborhood, Hengshan and Gao’an. On a map it might continue to Wanping, two blocks further west, at the edge of the park, or two blocks further north, to Huaihai or Fuxing, with their commercial bustle. East, perhaps the edge lies at Xiangyang or Shanxi, or even further, Maoming or Ruijin Er. But limits of a neighborhood are not drawn so clearly. They are shifty fleeting things of time and walking distance, of community, of school districts, of architecture, of income, of simple recognition. Xiangyang is far enough for me.

And it is with these decisions, often without thought, that we separate ourselves. So two children of New York, of the City, of the same college, of so much shared experience that to their company over diner in a small apartment in Shanghai they blend and blur, opinions overlapping, can argue, can push against the common box. Manhattan and Brooklyn are so different, they protest, and their high schools, completely different. Several others in the room agree with small nods, not necessarily of New York, but with the familiarity of past discussions, past attempts to prove their own location.

A girl, in an interview, on her home.

Baoshan is a great place to live, a better district than Xuhui or Huangpu.”

But aren’t Xuhui and Huangpu more downtown’, more convenient, her questioner wonders.

No, Baoshan is downtown, it is the center of Shanghai.”

The fragility of her argument is made precious by her belief. Her questioner does not note Shanghai’s spherical nature, it’s circular boundaries, and it’s series of encircling rings, containing at their heart four districts, and spreading outwards. With no argument of population, nor commercial value, no mention of business districts, shopping, night life, a simple circle placed atop Shanghai’s mapped existence will reveal Baoshan’s distance from the circle’s center.

In Jintan, weeks ago, a girl wandered the street with her harmonica as the Ode to Joy found its way through her cupped fingers. The street, it’s four shops, one restaurant and two houses all mingled in a run of concrete buildings, paid her no mind. Perhaps she plays and walks each morning, in the chill of January’s end, and is a common site in this neighborhood of her birth. Along Yueyang’s shaded walks she would surprise, her clothes and accent out of place, her harmonica sure to please the foreigners who are so frequent now.

Up Xinhua lu, still rolling west, having crossed the barren spread of Huashan and touched Huaihai briefly, the neighborhood changes. From Huashan’s vacancy and Huaihai’s bus-filled rumble, Xinhua is a deep breath of space and trees again. The shops, and passers-by, are not those of Yueyang, or Yongjia. An older community, fewer foreigners, less military, more Japanese. The difference is immediate and comforting. This is where I work, this is where I eat lunch and mail letters. This street, across Dingxi lu, is being renovated, but not built up. There are but two towers, and even those are slightly at odds with the surroundings, slightly shunned by the baozi eaters cradling their dumplings on the opposite corner where the bank and steamed bun shop still stand. The tower, with its coffee shops and cell phone dealers, is the stranger, something not quite of this neighborhood, but here. So small and fragile are these distinctions, built on collective consciousness. And so hard to remember, from outside.

In celebration, time

Cities are built in our minds as layers of stories, novels, photographs, brief visits. To live in them is not to dispel, but to add, not to remove, but to complement. The romantic vision of Paris still exists, after months of work-time drudgery, at another angle of view.

I moved to Shanghai on a vision and some faith. The Shanghai of my dreams had no maps, had no daily commutes. The Pearl Tower didn’t hover over the river, wrapped in pink reflections and the smoke of a thousand explosions. The small houses of the French Concession weren’t torn out and re-furbished, weren’t divided up and re-occupied. My vision, from this angle today, is hard to find. Perhaps it was of Hong Kong, or Tokyo. Perhaps it was actually of Pingyao or Changzhou. There were never this many fireworks, not on a Sunday night in early March. Not enough to have my walk home lit by hundreds from every street corner. Not a week after Chinese New Year, post vacation. Not by every employee, nor with such glee. The Shanghai I left Tokyo for was never wrapped in smoke that flashed green and red, that sparkled, that deafened with the thudding boom no smoke could shield me from.

Watching the suits roll out of Hong Kong plaza at noon on a Wednesday, out of Plaza 66 at 6 pm on a Friday, I wonder where the Shanghai I anticipated has gone. That strange land of Chinese people and mystery, of abduction so literally named that tempted me from afar.

What does New York look like to a boy growing up in Italy? In Mexico? In Bolivia? In Shanghai? What are these visions that drive us all to move across oceans, to push past distance and imagination, and what then do we find?

One night the bar is filled with collars, shirts starting to come un-tucked as Friday’s challenges recede into memory, as beer one’s grateful relief becomes beer four’s sudden enthusiasm. The pool table holds it’s own against the dart boards, the barman counsels whisky choices, Man U scores again and again in slow motion on a pirated Philipino cable channel. Outside on the balcony he’s hard to hear.

Shanghai didn’t have any streetlights when I got here. Now everything is neat.”

The difference between the Shanghai of imagination and the city of reality coalesce around his sentence, around the bar, around the sense of order possessed by New York, London, and Hong Kong, that of money. The global city that airline customers inhabit with such ease slips over the imagined city of men on plastic stools eating at pasteboard tables outside stone houses with no running water, their jackets square cut a reminder of the 40s, their bundled half-dozen layers a reminder of the season and the lack of insulation.

Wreathed in smoke tonight it’s hard to tell the two Shanghai’s apart. Zhaojiabang Lu is a mish-mash of explosions and quiet conversations in posh restaurants, parents taking their families out to huge meals, their servers running out the back between courses to set off crackers with the cooks. The smoke wraps the Audis as they attempt to park in multiples on the sidewalk. The smoke masks the specks of red paper and spots of ash that litter their roofs. The cigarette-selling woman stands, arms crossed and grinning at the scene, beside her friend the fruit vendor. They smile as they chat, these women who watch everything that passes on this street: weather, Audis, firecrackers, construction cranes, trees, men with axes, police.

The Shanghai of my dreams was really of someone else’s, or of fiction loosely based. My own stories of Shanghai are fragmentary, dependent on time, mood, luck, and friendship. The Shanghai of Economist editorials, of NYTimes stock rumblings, of factory openings and shipping schedules is likewise a fiction, an abstraction of the complete picture. Shanghai’s dumpling women standing in the steam mid-morning, water pouring down their faces and hair half tucked back, do share this city with the collar-popping crowd of Louis Vuitton fashion watchers, of Guandi party dancers, of dkd bouncers. My commute to work and the school child’s ride, tucked behind their parents on the scooter, are made on the same streets that Zhang Jimen’s Mercedes takes, that is then swept by hand by a blue-uniformed man who pulls his cart behind him.

Yet for everyone the moment comes, Shanghai’s changed,” it slips out, or I remember when we could,” or Back when …” Our visions falter, caught up in who we’ve become, thinking that the city is likewise obsessed, that the stories are not complementary.

Somewhere in this city is a boy just arrived from a foreign country, unable to speak, uncertain of where he will live when the hotel bill comes due. Somewhere in the city is a girl writing a novel that will lure him here once translated. Somewhere in the city is a visitor preparing to leave, is a teacher preparing to travel on holiday, is a student studying unfamiliar characters, is a man renting a small place all his own.

The Shanghai I was curious about from Japan is hard to see through the smoke of enthusiastic celebration. The Shanghai of my vision, so often forgotten these intervening years, was masked with a haze of confusion, of desire, of ignorance and hope. Tonight, walking home beneath colored thunder, these cities are not as far apart as they seem. They are the same, and have always been.

Counting smiles

A city can be measured by men using many tools. Depending on their interests men use numbers of their own kind, height of structures they have built, goods they produce in this place, or wealth those goods become. Internally people use different measurements, involving trees, air quality, or beaches. Moments long passed in time become common points of local reference, creating pride, used in turn by those whose business it is to categorize the scope of human gatherings.

There are, of course, as many ways of counting as things to count, and, today, another:

Electric bikes do not sputter or put or rumble or grind. They whisper along the roadside, allowing their rider a chance to view the world in seclusion, in motion. Invulnerable to the attractions of the road I slip by those wating for the bus with but one pause: to count their smiles.

A city can be judged on size, on money, on age. A city can be judged on smiles it creates.

In the fresh light tomorrow when all have awoken at their tallest, spines uncrunched by the weight of the work week, count them in passing. I have watched the crowds of Tokyo, the masses of New York, the push of Boston, the rumble of San Francisco, the throb of London, the cacaphonous mass of Shanghai for them, I have noted their absence, their brevity, their toothless gaping.

Bangkok’s gridlock, Beijing’s smothering smog, Los Angeles’ comparisons of wealth on wheels, Hong Kong’s suited seriousness, each one just another number of smiles. One more metric to be valued or dismissed. Shanghai lingers though, it’s smiles those of self-confidence, of emergence. These voices have been heard before, in the Economist, the New York Times. Shanghai is the up and coming, the Rio of two thousand plus. Buzzword-happy and building vertical, Shanghai is claimed to be the whirlwind home to the changing times.

Not my city.

The Shanghai I know, of noodle stands and street vendors, of stalls selling stuffed animals whose names mean nothing to their pushers, is a city born of mercantile desires wrapped in lives. No one is from here, really. The Shanghai locals, their dialect a wall cutting off the rest of China, are just farmers, traders, sailors, workers, migrants, a hundred and fifty years on. This city, these people on the street, they’re just getting by, getting through, working on, passing over the dirt, the construction, the smog, the smothering traffic, the government edicts, the relocations. These people, biking next to me in the mornings, crashing into me in the evenings, interrupting me at traffic lights, commenting on my coat, my hat, my face, the cuts, the bike… they’re just living the way I’m living. They’re just smiling back at my smile.

And I count smiles.

These smiles, they’re signs of appeasement, of flirtation, of frustration prevented, and of pure joy. They’re signs of Shanghai’s gift, of this city, and the people who’ve built it, the people who survive it.

Aren’t they anywhere?

Daegu lonely

The rain pours down, splashing off cars and sidewalks, dowsing Daegu liberally with cleanliness. The lightning slits apart the faint pulse of neon that lights the street, revealing small delivery trucks cowering at stop lights. The rain’s clatter does not find it’s way indoors, falling too vertical and fierce. Rooms remain muggy despite the faintest breeze, and when it passes, hours later, they will still stink of mid-day heat. The next morning the city will slowly start to bake again, stickiness clinging to everything, and by mid-afternoon the previous day’s shower will seem an impossibility, a night time dream of vast confusion. Business men will sweat through their couplets and shirts, pace outside restaurants in a struggle to remain in the shade, to smoke, and to avoid touching one another in these brief noontime moments of solitude.

And again as evening comes the clouds will gather, the sky darken, and at eleven the lightning, the thunder, the sudden drenching will return.

I imagine Daegu always this way, not seasonal as it must be, as it should be. My four days here are alike, each evening punctuated with sudden showers, violent in their suddenness, and baking days of sweat and sunshine that discourage the thought of their re-appearance. The heat licks around cars at 1 pm, making traffic a hellhole of exhaust and granting pedestrians the disgusting certainty of swallowing that which is not air. Windows go up, go down, go up and stay, as the cars cool, as the A/C that all rely on is first blessed and then exposed, a heat-exchanger of vile proportions, creating toxic streams along these concrete roadways that will desperately need their cleansing shower to enable the daily repeat. Commuting in a city trapped by hills, the air still, the pollution lingering, below a sign that says dye capital”, the air seems dead, though filled with energy. A combination not often found or championed.